EU Copyright Proposal Article 13 Set to Destroy the Internet (Again)
As mentioned in my previous post, Article 13 of the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market is the latest proposal that will “destroy the internet as we know it,” if the statute is ratified in its present form. The #copyright feed on Twitter seems dominated by messages proclaiming the existential toxicity of Article 13, and, as usual, there are a lot of articles agreeing with one another that this proposal is really bad—all of them long on synonyms for bad, but short on substance as to why bad things will actually come to pass. And the reason for this is that Article 13 does not outline any specific practices but rather proposes to adopt certain practices. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, it isn’t.
The broad goal of the EU Directive is to create a Digital Single Market (DSM), something that consumers, digital rights activists, and even many rightholders have been advocating for years. Harmonizing the disparate copyright laws (as they relate to internet distribution) of the 28 member countries should facilitate better access for users and, in principle, foster more robust trade in digital goods throughout the continent.
But the European Commission simultaneously recognizes various threats posed by the internet industry to the authors of works—especially from major platforms that host vast amounts of user-uploaded, copyrighted material. In the European Commission, these are called Online Content Sharing Service Providers (OCSSP), a category that excludes non-commercial sites like encyclopedias or sites where “content is uploaded with the authorisation of all concerned rigthholders, such as education or scientific repositories.”
Presently, the Directive’s Article 13 mandates that Member States work with major service providers, user representatives, and rightholders to develop technical measures designed to filter content in order to prevent or mitigate the uploading of infringing material. Here’s the language from the current draft:
“Member States shall facilitate, where appropriate, the cooperation between the online content sharing service providers, users, and rightholders through stakeholder dialogues to define best practices for the implementation of the measures referred to in paragraph 1 in a manner that is proportionate and efficient, taking into account, among others, the nature of the services, the availability of technologies and their effectiveness in light of technological developments.”
This is what will supposedly destroy the internet as we know it. A provision that Member States work with stakeholders to develop technical measures to filter unlicensed content from various platforms. A process that, if it happens at all, will take several years of negotiating (and bickering) to implement. I feel compelled to interject that when the DMCA was passed in the U.S. in 1998, it also contained a mandate that rightholders and service providers collaborate to develop technical measures in order to filter for infringing content. In fact, the service providers testified to the availability of such technical measures as part of their rationale for lobbying for the safe harbors in DMCA in the first place.
If America’s past is Europe’s prologue, the major service providers—with ample help from anti-copyright ideologues—will fight the implementation of such measures at every phase, so we’re at least 10-15 years from “destroying the internet we know.” I find this funny because the “internet we know” (using YouTube as a reference) isn’t 15 years old yet, and I’m not sure why the internet of 2031 should be required to resemble the internet of today in any context whatsoever.
Although the EU Directive is not specific about what technical measures should be developed and implemented, the usual chorus of critics hear the death knell of the internet in the mere suggestion that such technical measures should even be considered. Thus, the main message they’re selling—the one they always sell—is that no technical measure could ever be implemented without fostering censorship of protected speech. Hence, Pirate Party Member of the European Commission Julia Reda’s labeling these provisions “censorship machines.” Then, the anti-copyright voices in academia and “digital rights” groups jump on board with scary-sounding declarations like this one:
Algorithms Can’t Assess Fair Use!
It’s true. They can’t. And the day they can, I’m going into the bunker because this would indicate the machines have woken up and are about to kill us. Of course, most human users who upload copyrighted works aren’t very good at assessing fair use either—or more to the point, most human users don’t bother thinking about what they’re uploading, period. It is simply assumed at this point that every user is free to upload whatever he wants without considering whether he has any right to make a work available online.
Just because digital activists and copyright haters paint a picture of an internet replete with fair uses, that doesn’t make it true. In fact, in my anecdotal experience with friends—including artists who don’t want to infringe—almost nobody has taken the time to understand fair use. So, are social media platforms more richly populated by fair uses or infringing uses? I don’t know. But neither do any of the people currently overstating assumptions about fair use in order to scare users about the provisions in Article 13.
Moreover, as alluded to in my last post, if content filtering systems are too hypersensitive, this will adversely disrupt the use of licensed works. For instance, I pay for the stock photos I use on this blog, but if WordPress deploys a filter that is too robust and rejects every image, that’s bad for me and the rightholders of those images. This is a tiny example as to why Article 13 requires stakeholders to develop technical measures through collaboration.
And on that point, why don’t the digital activists ever seem to want to collaborate on such initiatives rather than invoke Revelations at the mere prospect of having the conversation? Because a) they fundamentally hate copyright and have no intention of finding compromise; or b) because they really are in Silicon Valley’s pocket and seek policies that serve the interests of Google et al.
It is important to keep in mind that almost no proposal—from voluntary to statutory—is ever endorsed by these parties if it implies even a hint of platform responsibility for user-uploaded content. This remains true despite the staggering evidence that our 20-year policy of leaving platforms to their own “merits” resulted in the Facebook/Russia/Cambridge-Analytica scandal. These events have led many citizens to reconsider the need to preserve “the internet as we know it” in favor of adapting to an internet that better serves society. To achieve this, we will have to accept that, in fact, there are laws applicable in physical space which are not rendered obsolete by interacting in cyberspace. Maybe if we describe this approach as disrupting the internet, the digital activists will get it.
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