In Depth

Article 13: are we heading for mass internet censorship?

Controversial EU legislation on copyright could destroy world wide web as we know it

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MEPs have voted to accept major changes to EU copyright laws that experts believe could transform the nature of the internet.

The amendments to the EU’s Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market were approved by the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs on Wednesday. The changes include the addition of Article 13, a measure that critics say would force publishers to install automated filters to prevent the uploading of copyrighted material.

Last week 70 leading figures in the field of technology signed a letter opposing the law change.

The signatories, who include world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, wrote: “The damage that this may do to the free and open internet as we know it is hard to predict, but in our opinions could be substantial... The cost of putting in place the necessary automatic filtering technologies will be expensive and burdensome, and yet those technologies have still not developed to a point where their reliability can be guaranteed.”

Summarising their arguments, Raegan MacDonald, a policy advisor at Mozilla, told The Next Web: “I think Article 13 is the biggest threat to the internet as we know it right now.” 

What is Article 13 proposing?

Until now, the so-called Ecommerce Directive has given online platforms “broad protection from being subject to copyright penalties when they simply acted as a conduit for user uploads”, says Gizmodo.

Article 13 will hold those platforms responsible for any content that their users upload, meaning that the platform is liable for any copyright infringement.

What’s wrong with that?

Mozilla’s MacDonald argues that Article 13 threatens the continuation of a healthy and open internet, in part because of the breadth of the definition in the proposal.

“The way this article is drafted, it kind of assumes that it’s being specific while it’s being extremely broad. So it’s not just about audio/visual content, it’s about all types and forms of copyright. It would be including lots of type of different content, even code sharing,” she says.

Activist Cory Doctorow agrees, calling it a “foolish, terrible idea”. Doctorow says that the protections necessary to comply with Article 13 - probably in the form of sophisticated upload filters - are not up to scratch.

Writing on news website Boing Boing, he said: “No filter exists that can even approximate this. And the closest equivalents are mostly run by American companies, meaning that US big tech is going to get to spy on everything Europeans post and decide what gets censored and what doesn’t.”

According to Gizmodo, what is “possibly the most important problem with Article 13 is that it makes no exceptions for fair use, a foundation of the internet and essential caveat in the law that allows people to remix copyrighted works”.

Internet memes - “which most commonly take the form of viral images, endlessly copied, repeated and riffed on”, notes Wired - could fall into a number of the categories prohibited by Article 13. This would create “an improbable scenario in which one of the internet’s most distinctive and commonplace forms of communication is banned”, Wired adds.

What do Article 13 supporters say?

Defenders of the legislation say that critics are exaggerating as a result of assumptions they’re making about how the legislation will be implemented.

Axel Voss, rapporteur of the European Parliament for the Copyright Directive, believes that the proposed reform will greatly benefit both European citizens and publishers.

“I feel that the criticism hasn’t been really balanced and not based on the actual text we’ve proposed,” Voss told The Next Web (TNW). “That’s why all these claims of censorship and upload filters are all a total exaggeration.”

Voss “points out that there’s no mention of upload filters in the proposal and that it’s simply making it mandatory to prevent copyright infringement from happening in the first place, something which is already existent in EU law”, adds the tech news site.

Many publishers are also in favour, including the Independent Music Companies Association (Impala).

“This is a strong and unambiguous message sent by the European Parliament,” executive chair Helen Smith told the BBC.

“It clarifies what the music sector has been saying for years - if you are in the business of distributing music or other creative works, you need a licence, clear and simple. It’s time for the digital market to catch up with progress.”

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