Tangled web

The EU takes on the internet

Putting the hash into hashtags. Source: DPA

“The fight is lost,” mourned Netzpolitik, a German language blog on digital rights and digital culture. Its writers described the EU’s decision to pass the Copyright Directive as drawing a “veil over the internet.” Others called it a “catastrophic blow” for tech.

The European Parliament approved by a large majority – 483 in favor, against 226 – the directive, including three controversial articles, 3, 11 and 13. The last two would introduce a link tax and upload filters.

A link tax would require companies that share news – known as aggregators, such as Google – to pay media companies for transmitting their content.

And major tech platforms such as Facebook, Google and YouTube would have to use upload filters to check that content uploaded to their platforms doesn’t violate copyright. The law would make companies responsible for the content published on their sites.

The push is part of an attempt to unify European approaches to intellectual property. Next, all 28 EU member states vote on the directive and there will be a final vote next year. But if the “link tax” and “upload filter” are enshrined in law, they will have major consequences for the internet in Europe and possibly beyond.

Makes their blood boil

What galls the critics are articles 11 and 13, which will not only affect larger tech platforms but also smaller contributors: regular internet users who might also upload text, pictures or code, contributing to sites like Wikipedia.

But proponents likewise say they are protecting less powerful users, such as the artists and newspapers who, these supporters argue, are losing the fight against big tech. While all conceded it is a good thing for creators to be paid for the work that they do, many said this isn’t the right way to address that issue. Backers say this protects creators and levels the playing field; opponents say it’s death to the unfettered web, turning tech companies to content police.

“Today’s decision is a bitter setback for the free and open internet, favoring company profits over the principles that enabled the internet to become what it is today, said Julia Rede, a politician for Germany’s Pirate Party.

The initiatives were led by Axel Voss, a German politician who greeted today’s result as a “success for our creative industries.” Philipp Welte, a newspaper publisher, told Handelsblatt that journalistic online content needed to be able to be financed to protect press freedom and independence. But an earlier German link tax – similar to article 11 – introduced in 2013 failed to help publishers. The levy was shown to support only larger newspapers, while local publications failed to benefit.

Spam attack!

Internet bloggers commented on Twitter that artistic freedom and creativity had been sacrificed by courting companies and publishing houses that don’t understand the internet.

Others, meanwhile, called the criticism absurd. Stefan Winners, head of digital at Burda, a German publisher, said he was proud of the EU parliamentarians, saying they’d faced a “spam attack on our democracy,” in the form of “aggressive lobbying indirectly financed by Google and Facebook.”

One Dutch MEP who had proposed adjustments to the controversial articles was disappointed with the Strasbourg vote. Marietje Schaake wanted article 13 without the upload filter, and a “beefed-up presumption right for press publishers.” She said Wednesday’s result was a “step backwards” that could damage Europe’s future in artificial intelligence.

She was referring to article 3, which has earned less attention than the others but applies to the startups and their capacity for text and data mining. Industry groups complain that TDM is needed to generate artificial intelligence, a race which doesn’t see Europe winning any time soon. Restrictions on text and data mining, as foreseen in article 3, could, they say, hamper the ability of machines to learn. Activists are now calling for an overhaul of article 3 “to allow SMEs, researchers, innovators and startups access” to the data they need.

Meanwhile, another petition was approaching its goal of a million signatures opposing articles 11 and 13 by late Wednesday afternoon. Run by a group called “save the internet,” this deal doesn’t seem to be quite done yet.

Eva Fischer is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Brussels. Allison Williams, deputy editor at Handelsblatt Global, contributed to this article. To contact the author: fischer@handelsblatt.com

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