/A fight for the (digital) ages

A fight for the (digital) ages

Europe is kick-starting its Digital Single Market project with a make-over of its copyright laws. The copyright reform aims to provide better protection and compensation for work produced by creators and publishers. But its implementation has far reaching consequences for every internet user on the planet.

‘The European Union needs modern copyright rules fit for the digital age.’ This was Günther Oettinger’s closing statement in 2016 as he closed the door on his tenure as European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. In this era of memes and Star Wars GIFs, so far the European digital landscape resembled the lawlessness of the Wild West. But recently a new sheriff came to town in the form of the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (ECD).

Let’s start with the basics. The sheriff has two controversial guns hanging on his hips: article 11 and 13.

Article 11 conveys the implementation of a link tax. Internet giants like Facebook and Google News will have to provide press publishers with “a fair and proportionate renumeration for the digital use of their press publications.” So unless Facebook has a license for a publisher’s content, your grandma won’t be able to share that article with you about how lazy millennials are ruining the economy.

This is great news for the publishers, who coincidentally lobbied fiercely in the European Parliament. Until now they felt powerless to do anything against the internet giants that are raking in advertisement revenue on the backs of their labour. European Federation of Journalists’ head of Policy Yuk Lan Wong said, “The ECD creates an exclusive right for publishers that protects their content for digital use in order to ensure quality journalism and citizens’ access to information. As such we fully support it.” 

On the flipside you could argue that publishers actually benefitted from all this sharing and caring by news aggregators. Martin Senftleben, professor of Intellectual Property at the university of Amsterdam, doubts if this new policy will even make a dent in the publishers’ financial turmoil . 

“Basically publishers just want their piece of the pie, and that’s perfectly understandable.” explains Senftleben,  “However they can’t have it too. As a result any website that provides a platform for the distribution of such content needs to get a license; or not and simply abandon the article-sharing practice altogether. It won’t be the financial Hail Mary they’re looking for. Germany and Spain already have similar laws in place. It proved ineffective in bringing in more funds.” 

This is what an implemented link tax might look like. (Photo: Julia Reda)


The second iron on the sheriff’s hip has been lovingly nicknamed by the internet as ‘The Meme Killer’. In a nutshell, from now on any platform that provides the means to upload user-generated content, will be held responsible for copyright infringements committed by that content.

The intention behind the article seems sound. To protect artists, filmmakers, photographers etc. from having their hard work powerlessly pillaged and misused by digital thieves. Nothing is free after all.

However, the devil is in the details. The ECD places responsibility with the platforms, indirectly forcing them to implement copyright filters that would overcautiously scan all of the content that gets uploaded for infringements, or face a hefty fine.

This causes quite a few headaches as you can imagine. First of all, the technology simply isn’t there. Anyone familiar with YouTube’s recent Adpocalypse knows just how badly algorithms/AI can go haywire. As a side note, 300 hours of content is uploaded onto YouTube every hour. By now that’s around 216000 years’ worth of accumulated videos. 

And this is what an implemented copyright filter might look like (Photo: Julia Reda)


Devising software capable of scanning through all those cat videos is no easy feat. Not to mention that an algorithm is not human and won’t share our sense of humour for sarcastic parodies like voice-overs, reaction videos or critical reviews using film snippets. It can’t differentiate right from wrong here.

Consequently, since these platforms get triggered at the sight of lawsuits, they will set up a safe-space and err on the side of caution when developing their filters. Using a heavy handed approach to anything that might constitute a copyright infringement, even if it was done so in error. The user would of course be able to appeal the take-down but on the internet time is short and attention spans fleeting. 

Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and even WhatsApp are just a few examples of the affected. Small companies that rely on user-generated content will also need to implement costly filter software. Another blow to the digital start-ups that Europe’s economy so desperately needs.

European ‘memers’ will most likely have to take refuge in unlicensed images, hand-drawn pictures or work by authors who have been dead for over 70 years. However absurd that might sound. Then again, the internet has so far always found a way around just about anything.

In drafting this directive, the EU had the intention of ensuring that honest work is compensated appropriately. However in their zeal to push through legislation, it might have adopted a bulldozer while it actually wanted a sleek race car. “The elections are on everyone’s mind. Time is short, so if a piece of legislation is ready, it will probably get approved” says European Member of Parliament Julia Reda of the German Pirate Party. “Unfortunately that means that some laws don’t get the care and attention they deserve nor are they always fully understood. As a Pirate I’m a staunch opponent of the ECD since it will constrain the internet’s freedom and might open the door for censorship by big corporations.”

The internet isn’t afraid to pick up its pitchfork in self-defence. It has proven this time and time again. In fact it already has. But this time, the complexity seems to have dampened its usual frenzy. With the September vote tallying 438 ‘yeas’ and 226 ‘nays’, the internet will have to pull out the big guns if it wants to sway the final plenary vote in January of 2019.