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4 July 2018updated 21 Sep 2021 6:24am

Here’s how one law could catastrophically screw up how we use internet

Buried inside proposed legislation are new rules that could fundamentally change the internet as we know it.

By Sarah Manavis

Nothing gets people pumped up quite like copyright legislation. But a new law going to a vote later today has passed many by, despite the fact that it could completely and catastrophically change how we use the internet for the foreseeable future.

The Copyright Directive, as voted for by the European Union’s Legal Affairs Committee, on the surface looks like a simple, arguably mundane, set of updates to copyright law. Similarly to GDPR, EU copyright rules were not entirely in line with modern uses of the internet, so the Copyright Directive was merely meant to refresh the legislation to catch up to modern day. However, two articles buried within the directive, Articles 11 and 13, have resulted in public outrage and panic, because of the startlingly severe restrictions they would put on internet usage.

Simply put, both articles would involve fees and restrictions to copyrighted content reproduced online. In the case of Article 11, companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, would be prohibited from sharing links on their site without first buying a licence for it. This means companies that share any links on their website (like Google’s search engine or Facebook’s pages and Home Feed) would require a licence from the linked content’s media company to actually share it. This would mean that if you typed a search term into Google, the only results it could display would be links it has already paid a licence fee for. Article 13, on the other hand, would require all content uploaded to the internet from the EU to be filtered, and potentially deleted, through a system that would decide if it infringes on any copyright. And while both of these articles would require drastic, fundamental changes to the way we use the internet, the EU has not explained how these changes will be made and who bear the cost to make them. 

The outrage hasn’t just come from angry free-speechers on Twitter, but from the people who actually built the internet as we know it, including Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) and Tim Berners-Lee (the founder of the World Wide Web). Both signed an urgent letter to the European Parliament urging that Article 13 is struck from the legislation. Meanwhile, 150 scholars from across Europe also put out a statement urging the EU to vote down the new legislation over Article 11.

Such a severe response over the fine print of a European Parliament directive may appear exaggerated, but the alarmed response is more than justified. The people and organisations affected by this legislation aren’t limited to a small bunch: it will affect, and even harm, virtually everyone. So which category do you fall under? 

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Start-ups and small businesses

Licence fees, and the technology required to monitor and delete duplications of copyrighted content, are crucial to both Article 11 and 13, licence fees. And both these things will cost money. While multimillion pound corporations and similarly sized news outlets will be irritated by this legislation, the cost won’t be insurmountable for them to stay afloat. For start-ups and small businesses, however, this is not the case. In the aforementioned letter regarding Article 13, tech influencers warned that the burden would fall heaviest on these businesses, detrimental to those employees but potentially detrimental to the British economy.

Small news outlets and journalists

Arguably the most concerning part of this legislation, Article 11 will inherently benefit large news corporations, because they would have to be paid for links to their content. But small news outlets and independent journalists, especially ones that focus on digital output, are a key part of media innovation and development (as is highlighted in the statement by European academics.) Often, because of limited resources, these journalists rely on links to outside publications to gain reach to grow their readership. Because of the cost of licence fees and developing content monitoring technology, news organisations that already have enormous budgets are well equipped to adapt to this new legislation. The cost also means that, while major news outlets slide easily into the new set of rules, small news outlets, as well as freelance journalists, will simultaneously struggle. With the cost of fees, this could mean hiring fewer journalists, more journalists leaving the profession, and even small publications folding. As with small businesses, the burden of the new directive will fall on those who cannot afford to bear it.

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Independent creators

For independent creators it’s not just money, but also ownership. Save Your Internet, a campaign created in protest of Article 13 specifically, pointed out that small, independent creators could have their content deleted without their consent, and it could even be done so without their knowledge. 

“Cartoonists, gamers, illustrators, photographers, documentary filmmakers, animators, musicians, DJs, and dancers,– bloggers, journalists, and technologists,” are just a handful of independent content developers who Save Your Internet note as being susceptible to the new legal requirements.

Memes and their makers

This means that these rules also apply to memes. Because they are simply variations on, often, copyrighted material, memes as we know it could vanish under Article 13 (how and who will make these changes is still a great unknown.) Speaking to the BBC, executive director of the Open Rights Group James Killock said, “While machines can spot duplicate uploads of Beyonce songs, they can’t spot parodies, understand memes that use copyright images, or make any kind of cultural judgement about what creative people are doing.”

Anyone who uses Wikipedia

The brilliance of Wikipedia is that its pages are wholly crowdsourced through information gathered across a variety of sources. However, under Article 11, Wikipedia would be required to pay fees for even the smallest news article linked to on the site, meaning that effectively the entirety of Wikipedia will be under threat. In protest against Article 11 earlier this week, Italian Wikipedia blacked out all of its pages to highlight how restrictive the new legislation would be for accessing the site. And as the letter signed by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales noted, the law wouldn’t just make it harder to run Wikipedia, but also make it more difficult to contribute. 

The vote on the new directive later today will not necessarily stop or indeed ratify this legislation. The vote is merely the chance for MEPs to vote to say that the legislation might need to be modified or scrapped (a copy of which can be found here.) However, if this legislation is not stopped we risk a far more restricted internet in future; indeed, we risk dismantling the internet as we know it.