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The EU Copyright Directive is about to make the internet worse for almost everyone

The European Union's new Copyright Directive stands to dramatically change the way we consume news and other online content. Although originally intended to ensure creators and news organizations are fairly compensated for their work, the directive will more likely make quality news harder to find, throw financial and technical roadblocks in the way of smaller online publishers and creators, stifle free speech and negatively impact internet culture.

The directive is currently in the late stages of closed-door negotiations between the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council before being put to a vote of EU member nations. If passed as-is, it'll be a major change to the balance of power around online copyright. The ripples from the EU CD are likely to be felt even outside the EU's borders -- in areas as serious as major news coverage, and as silly as the memes we see on Twitter and Facebook.

The directive is supported by some European publishing giants and major record labels and musicians like Paul McCartney. But it's faced growing opposition from tech giants, social networks and online content creators, as well as campaign groups like the EFF and academics like world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

The main controversy centers on Articles 11 and 13 of the directive, also known as the "link tax" and "upload filter" requirements.

Article 11 forces news sites to charge Google and others for snippets.

Article 11 requires online news aggregators like Google, Facebook or Twitter to pay licensing fees to news organizations when showing snippets of their coverage, and forces news organizations to charge these fees. The goal is to compensate cash-strapped news publishers for the parts of their articles being used in places like Google News, where you might see an image and short summary alongside the headline. The argument from big publishers is that Google and others are cashing in on their content by showing links and snippets on "monetized platforms," and they want a slice of the action.

On the other hand, the idea that a reader would skim past a snippet where otherwise they'd click and read the entire story is at best contentious. What's more, the EU CD requires a "non-waivable" licensing fee, meaning smaller publishers in need of extra visibility of aggregators like Google can't simply charge a link fee of zero.

As reported by SearchEngineLand, a similar law enacted in Spain in 2015 went pretty badly for all concerned, ultimately resulting in Google News being shuttered entirely in that country.

Google recently published an example of how Google News might look in a post-Article 11 world -- in essence, a search results page that at first glance appears to be broken. No extended headlines. No thumbnails. No snippets.

Google News

In December the company's VP of news, Richard Gingras, highlighted further issues for small publishers, who'd be required to enter into complex commercial agreements with individual aggregators in order to compete for online attention.

Article 11 could [require aggregators] to strike commercial deals with publishers to show hyperlinks and short snippets of news. This means that search engines, news aggregators, apps, and platforms would have to put commercial licences in place, and make decisions about which content to include on the basis of those licensing agreements and which to leave out.Effectively, companies like Google will be put in the position of picking winners and losers. Online services, some of which generate no revenue (for instance, Google News) would have to make choices about which publishers they'd do deals with. Presently, more than 80,000 news publishers around the world can show up in Google News, but Article 11 would sharply reduce that number. And this is not just about Google, it's unlikely any business will be able to license every single news publisher in the European Union, especially given the very broad definition being proposed.

It's also not clear where the line would be drawn between a snippet, which would be subject to the link tax, and a simple hyperlink, which wouldn't. Aggregators would likely err on the side of caution, lest they end up in court.

As a test case for what Article 11 might mean for publishers, Ars Technica reported in 2015 that when Spain's similar news aggregator tax came into force, smaller outlets in particular suffered a 14 percent drop in traffic, with some local services going out of business altogether.

The Upload Filter

Article 13 of the EU CD is even more problematic and far-reaching. It makes sites hosting user-created content, like YouTube, Twitter and countless others, liable for copyright infringement on their platforms. They're on the hook, and could be sued in the EU by rights holders like movie studios and TV networks for things uploaded by their users. As such, they'd be required to proactively police their platforms for copyright infringement. That means things like memes including anything copyrighted (in other words, most memes), or screengrabs taken from a movie or TV show would need to be filtered before the content is published online.

Article 13 is about more than just outlawing memes.

Since EU law includes no fair use provision -- in contrast to the U.S. -- this could be extended to include footage of movies, TV shows and games used in critique and commentary.

Protecting against legitimate copyright infringement is important. Equally though, something as draconian as Article 13 steps far over the line into stifling free expression. There's a big difference between wholesale theft of an entire copyrighted work and sharing a reaction GIF on Twitter. The latter is not true infringement in the spirit of the law, it is a part of the way we communicate online today. But that nuance is lost on the EU CD.

Since the Article 13 makes platform holders liable by default, they'd almost certainly exercise an abundance of caution, leading to plentiful false positives -- users' posts being wrongly censored. This can already be seen in YouTube's ContentID system, which scans uploaded videos after the fact and allows rights holders to either take down or siphon money from videos using their content. Often ContentID enables wealthy rights holders to monetize the transformative work of smaller YouTubers, or block such works entirely on the basis of a few seconds of infringing footage. We can expect more of this if the EU CD comes into force -- particularly if a new, even more draconian scanning system needs to approve videos and images from European creators before they go live.

It's also not hard to imagine how such extreme restrictions on tweets, YouTube videos or Facebook posts could be misused by wealthy rights holders in other ways, such as to censor or suppress criticism.

All of this is to say nothing of smaller social media platforms without the resources to develop their own copyright-scanning megafilter for user-generated content. As with Article 11, the smallest platforms stand to be hurt the most.

Indeed, had something like Article 13 been enacted 15 years ago, it's unlikely Twitter or YouTube would exist in their current form.

All but the largest of news publishers benefit from the visibility and signal-boosting that comes from placement in news aggregators. And all but the largest, wealthiest content creators benefit from the relaxed, common-sense approach to copyright enforcement that pervades social media and video platforms today. Most importantly, society in general and internet culture specifically benefits from healthy free expression on online platforms, unhindered by onerous copyright policing.

If you live in an EU country and wish to stand up for free expression and competition online, you can take action here.

Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

25 Comments
  • Actually, there are a number of exemptions from the copyright directive, both for small platforms and for types of content (e.g. memes) that would fall under what the US considers "fair use", so there is actually some nuance unlike as you say. Platforms must also provide tools for users to challenge removals and receive a swift response, and they must provide sufficient reasoning for removals. One of the main problems of the directive is simply the technical enforceability. On the one hand, the filter system itself would be very expensive and only large platforms would be able to stem that cost without needing to license a filter system from somebody else (and yes, small platforms are exempted, but another problem is that many consider the definition of small to be too narrow). On the other hand, it would be difficult to distinguish a valid use case from a copyright violation, likely leading to many false positives even for the exemptions as the platforms would err on the side of caution. As for article 11, the idea is that unlike with Spain's case, the entire EU market would be too big for Google to ignore by shutting it out, so they would be forced to pay in this case. Whether that works out as intended remains to be seen, of course. In lighter news, as e.g. The Verge reports (https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/18/18188571/europe-copyright-directive-l...), there is far from unanimity between the EU states in this matter (Italy in particular opposes the directive in its current form for many of the stated reasons), so the last word is far from spoken on the matter. In addition to the link given at the end of the article, there is also a change.org petition directed at the EU Parliament here: https://www.change.org/p/european-parliament-stop-the-censorship-machine...
  • This is definitely a step in good direction. There are a lot of issues in execution and they gonna be ironed out eventually.
    At least EU is doing something about it, while US has clueless legislators waiting for ever growing problems to "fix themselves".
  • The US has paid off legislators carrying out their benefactors' will.
  • Truth is monetized platforms that collect SOMEONE else's product/data for presentation SHOULD be licensed. What that amount is and how often applied can be up for debate. But the days of legitimate (and often enormous) companies like Google functionally hoarding the product of another company FOR FREE so Google can monetize it FOR GOOGLE has to stop.
  • Content creators certainly need to be justly compensated, and should have control over what level of compensation they will accept for use of their content.
  • As usual when the useless oxygen wasters in EU is involved they screw with things they dont understand and the end result is always a crappier and more expensive life for the ordinary people that have the misfortune to live within the union.
  • Childless bureaucratics have no problem with restricting the freedoms of the common man. They have no future.
  • F*** the EU
  • Nah. They'll just regulate and tax f'ing the EU.
  • The EU has a massive free speech problem in general and that us the least if their future worries. The entire EU will be utterly restructured within a decade if it wants to continue to exist. These asinine regulations will go the way of the dodo.
  • "The EU has a massive free speech problem in general "
    How so?
  • > "The EU has a massive free speech problem in general "
    > How so?
    You can look, for instance, at UK Official Secrets Act -- there is a reason George Orwell was born there. Or you can look at number of criminally punishable taboo subjects in Germany... I mean I do not know which EU country you reside in, so I cannot come up with the example closer to your home.
  • The proper way to do this would be to charge a small fee (e.g. €5, maybe proportional to storage size) to register a copyright for the work with a government look-up service for a short period (e.g. 5 years), then a small renewal fee (e.g. 0.1% of profits from the work or €5, whichever is higher, at most 1 year early) for a short period renewal fee. Although, I suppose that, given the potential of "Hollywood accounting", profits might be difficult to track.
  • Glad I don't live in the EU. Seems like they're always coming up with some stupid tech policy.
  • Just another data point to throw into the mix that's already proven the correlation between the rise of digital fascism and the loss of tech innovation.
  • Do member states have a veto on this? Can anyone tell me?
  • Depends, for this nope it's just a majority rule.... Now foreign policy is a different matter and member states can veto
  • Endless regulation. While China let's its tech companies steal, pilfer and copy as much IP as possible, the EU stifles innovation by taxing and regulating the snot out of it.
    What you tax and regulate, you inherently get less of. Subsidize something and you get more of it. (Welfare state)
    Articles 11 and 13 look to benefit a certain group of people in government, old-media and the ultra-wealthy. Period.
    There is no arguement that can persuade me that any of that mumbo jumbo is good for anyone else, anywhere.
    Enjoy your new internet overlords, EU folks. Your welcome in the US if you ever smarten up.
  • Yeah, no thanks. The EU is not perfect, but in so many other ways you're way worse off in the US.
  • Na, I have dual citizenship...was born in Germany small town north of Leipzig..
    Most of my family still lives in Germany and Austria.. I go back from time to time. The taxes are fricken horrendous. If I make the same here ( usa) as I would in Germany Income taxes would be 42%..now let's add the 19% vat tax on everything....oh yea say I drive a company car I have to pay taxes on that.... And dont get me started on if you tweet something wrong in some EU countries yep that could be jail time or huge fine.... my borther makes 3 times what I make he lives outside Berlin Germany...and at the end of the year I net more then him.... Yea I'll stay put....
  • > oh yea say I drive a company car I have to pay taxes on that.... To be fair -- if you are using company car for personal purposes in US you have to pay taxes on that too. It is considered "fringe benefit" and is taxable at income rate. Whether it is enforceable or enforced is the different story.
  • Looks like the mods went through and cleaned this thread up. Both US and the EU are nice places. Both have pros and cons its just that the cons for EU are huge deal breakers.
  • Tl; dr The USA is **** with regard to Internet regulation both for the consumer and the industry. The EU is harsh with Internet regulation both for the consumer and the industry. Regardless of your particular political position it is clear that the EU is at least approaching these regulations with the public "good" central to their plans. In some situations they are correct and in others they are wrong. On balance at least they are trying to be "good". Most of the complaints in the comments sections of various outlets are from people in the USA whining about "their" companies being held to a higher standard which speaks volumes.
  • > it is clear that the EU is at least approaching these regulations with the public "good" central to their plans. I think putting "good" in quotes, in this specific case, is very appropriate. It being "central to your plans" is somewhat dubious.
  • We can argue about the approach or the reasoning but at least the EU have the consumer at heart in what they are attempting to do. If the companies' getting a slap on the wrist were not American then most would agree.