What to know about Europe’s new digital copyright rules

Internet use as we know it may soon change forever.

That’s because of new copyright rules recently passed by the European Parliament that could have implications far beyond Europe’s borders.

Last month, the European Parliament voted to approve highly contested changes known as the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive. The legislation is intended to bring European copyright law up to date with modern technology.

In a press release, representatives of the European Commission stated that the new directive “ensures the right balance between the interests of all players – users, creators, authors, press – while putting in place proportionate obligations on online platforms.”

But not everyone is convinced that the rules will have positive effects, and many have warned that this could be the first step on a slippery slope towards internet censorship.

Wondering how the measures could impact your US-based company? As was seen with GDPR, the EU’s data protection legislation, European internet laws can have an impact in the US (and elsewhere), given the nature of the internet. So, it’s a good idea to understand what’s going on sooner than later.

Here’s a look at the new legislation and what happens next.

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What’s included in the directive?

First introduced by the European Commission in 2016, the new copyright rules include two sections that are particularly contentious: Articles 11 and 13 (now numbered as 15 and 17 after a recent update).

Article 11, dubbed the “link tax,” would allow publishers to charge platforms, like Google News and large social media sites, for displaying snippets of stories. That means news aggregator platforms would need to create licenses with publishers to share their articles.

Google has already said the legislation would be cost-prohibitive and suggested it might signal the end of Google News in Europe.

But the most significant source of concern for those opposing the legislation revolves around Article 13.

Currently, it’s the responsibility of rights holders to flag copyright violations with tech companies, who then pull the content if they determine that it infringes copyright. Under the new directive, platforms like YouTube will be responsible for ensuring their users don’t upload content that would breach copyright. Critics have argued that Article 13 could lead to platforms introducing “upload filters” that will scan user content before it’s uploaded and remove copyrighted material.

The law doesn’t explicitly call for the use of upload filters, but opponents of the legislation say the implementation of filters will be inevitable as companies will be looking to protect themselves. That means that rather than taking down content that is identified as being in breach of copyright after being posted, platforms will prevent the upload from taking place in the first place.

Some have also said that Article 13 will bring an end to all memes in Europe. The European Commission has stated this isn’t the case and that “content generated by users for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody and pastiche (like GIFs or similar) will be specifically allowed.” But this hasn’t alleviated the concerns of those against the new rule, who say that any upload filters won’t be error-free and could censor content that does not violate any copyright.

If you think the legislation sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. Article 13 is very similar to the proposed SOPA and PIPA acts of 2012 in the US, which were defeated after millions of people voiced concern for the bills.

What are people saying?

A lot.

The copyright rules have sparked heated debate for the last few years, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.

Those for the legislation say the changes will ensure writers, artists, and musicians get paid for their work that is available on the internet.

“Parliament has chosen to put an end to the existing digital Wild West by establishing modern rules that are in step with technological development,” said Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, in a press release.

But opponents say that while the measures may have good intentions, they could have detrimental consequences once implemented.

“Dark day for internet freedom,” tweeted Julia Reda, a member of the European Parliament from Germany.

Last year, a group of internet pioneers and entrepreneurs, including Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, signed an open letter opposing Article 13, and calling the measure “an imminent threat to the future of this global network.”

In addition to concerns that upload filters will inadvertently block some copyright-free content, critics have also suggested that the Article 13 rule would give more power to big tech companies. The argument is that large tech enterprises are the only ones that will be able to afford and implement a filter system, which will negatively impact smaller companies and likely eliminate potential future competition in the tech realm.

“Anyone developing a platform with EU users that involves sharing links or content faces great uncertainty,” said Tal Niv, GitHub’s vice president of law and policy. “The ramifications include being unable to develop features that web users currently expect, and having to implement very expensive and inaccurate automated filtering.”

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Next steps

A vote of approval by the European Parliament doesn’t mean that the bill is now officially law. It still has to receive approval by the European Council, which has already said it will approve the legislation.

After that, EU member states will have 24 months to enact the new rules.

How the changes are implemented in each country could be interesting. For example, in Germany and Spain, the link tax was previously introduced but failed in both countries.

The various support for the copyright directive among EU member states also means there is the risk of inconsistent restrictions implemented across the bloc. In fact, leaders in Poland have indicated they will not fully implement the new copyright reform because it hinders freedom of speech.

However, unlike with the GDPR legislation, which gave existing regulatory bodies the power to enforce that law, it’s not clear who will be responsible for ensuring consistency of the copyright rules.

And since the directive has already faced lengthy delays because of disagreements among member states, there’s no question that consistency will become an issue as implementation starts.

For now, there are still a lot of unknowns about exactly how the rules will be put into practice. But given the global nature of the internet, there’s a likelihood that how the directive is implemented could very well influence the future of the world wide web.

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