Internet Activists Clinging to Old Models in EU Copyright Fight

Last week was a rare, silent moment on this blog because I was in the middle of a rather arduous house move.  Consequently, I may be more than unusually prickly on the subject of holding onto old things, but it seems the last several days yielded a lot of internet activism aimed against the EU Copyright Directives, all of which seems to imply an unfathomable vote for the status quo.

Tomorrow (9/12), the European Parliament will vote on proposed copyright reforms as part of its Digital Single Market initiative. As happens with all proposals to improve the efficacy of copyright online, the familiar cadre of digital activists unleashed their weary-looking rhetorical hounds to frighten people into believing that the internet as we know it teeters at the edge of yet another existential cliff. That this strategy was effective five or six years ago was not terribly surprising, but the fact that there is no deviation from the digital activist’s hyperbolic narrative today is curious in light of the fact that more than a few of us in democratic nations have clued into a hard reality: the internet as we know it SUCKS.

I know. I’ve said it over and over. But seriously. The internet has hardly done democratic principles any favors. So why is anyone hell-bent on preserving the internet as-is for the sake of democratic principles? Or have I overlooked some nuance woven into the crazy-quilt of dysfunctional populism lately savaging common sense and decency throughout the Western world? As Stefan Herwig states in a recent guest post on The Trichordist

“We urgently need a new Internet narrative that recognizes that access to information is only apparently free and socially useful while algorithms pre-sort our information horizon, equating popularity with relevance. The master algorithm popularity = relevance is deeply inscribed in the infrastructural DNA of the internet, steadily reprogramming our society. With the infiltration of such information services, that are targeted towards steadily confirming our opinions, serving our interests and networking us predominantly with like-minded people, we constantly lessen our societal abilities to differentiate and hold constructive discourses and heat up the growing disenchantment with politics and media.”

Thankfully, serious people are now willing to have a conversation about (rather than fawn over) the major internet platforms and their role in fostering so much political toxicity. Evan Osnos has published a new article for The New Yorker called “Ghost In The Machine: Can Mark Zuckerberg Fix Facebook Before It Breaks Democracy?” In it, he writes, “In Sri Lanka, after a Buddhist mob attacked Muslims this spring over a false rumor, a Presidential adviser told the Times, ‘The germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind.’”

That seems like an appropriate, tone-setting metaphor for a badly-needed fresh conversation about the responsibilities of internet platforms, who have long enjoyed a presumption of “neutrality” bolstered by legal frameworks that absolve ISPs of liability. Because, of course, these platforms are not the unmanageable wind; they are corporations directed by people to make profitable decisions.

As alluded to in this older post, if we’re ever going to find the right balance for internet governance overall, then copyright enforcement is a damn good place to start—particularly because mass copyright infringement was so intrinsic to the development of the “web as we know it.” Y’know, the one that sucks.

The irony, of course, is that with regard to the copyright proposals, the activists declaring that the internet needs saving (again) are not telling the truth about the actual proposals. And, well, there’s really no point in any of us fretting over predicted “censorship” if we’re going to believe opinion-makers who disseminate exaggerations and lies. The implication that, for instance, Article 13 of the EU proposal will end memes and remixes and ensure that no startup will enter the digital market should register as truly absurd as they sound. I mean without even looking into the details—because nobody does that anymore—do those claims even ring true to anyone willing to take a brief skeptical pause?

What’s being proposed in the EU is that the platforms, particularly major platforms, that host user-uploaded content might have to—get this—pay license fees to producers of that content and, further, that they might have to enable the content producers to have more control over how their works are exploited. Control over the use of works and financial compensation are two rather basic functions of copyright—principles that most people actually still support. And whether the EU gets these measures exactly right or not—because we are still years away from actual implementation of said proposals—there is something fundamentally wrong with people who seek to hijack the dialogue by screaming CENSORSHIP at the mere suggestion that perhaps the status quo isn’t working for everyone. Because it isn’t.

Finally, I have to agree with author John Degen, who posted his thoughts today on Medium after attempting dialogue with one notable critic on Twitter. “What struck me about the response yesterday was not the volume or the vehemence,” writes Degen, “It was the abject negativity and pessimism that was being expressed about the future of the internet and the possibility of innovation away from the state of things as they are.”

What that reminds me of is the “debate” over climate change. Whenever the answer came back that we can never mitigate carbon output without destroying the economy, I always considered this to be a needlessly fatalistic response. I mean all of human progress hinges on the attitude that we can’t do that thing…yet.

So, I agree with Degen that we can and should imagine an internet marketplace that treats artists and creators of works fairly, if for no other reason than everyone else in the world is now too dependent upon the network to simply leave it to ISPs to look out for our interests as they see fit. The EU Copyright Directive is a baby step toward platform responsibility; and those who oppose it so vehemently at this stage of the process clearly cannot fathom the internet ever changing into anything other than what it is right now. They are clinging to old models.

UPDATE:  The proposals passed this morning with a vote of 438 to 226 and 39 abstentions.  Hardly the end of the story.  Stay tuned.

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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