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Will we follow the EU’s attacks on web freedom?

20 September 2018

11:19 AM

20 September 2018

11:19 AM

The European Parliament’s decision to approve two articles in the name of copyright protection sets a worrying precedent for our digital rights and threatens the fundamental freedom of expression by emboldening the surveillance state.

The vote in favour of the EU copyright directive attracted an unsettling majority of 438 to 226. EU Parliamentarians in favour of the law argue it simply updates online copyright laws for the new internet age, allowing artists and journalists to be paid when their work is used by sharing platforms while preventing users from sharing unlicensed copyrighted material. Proponents of the changes point to existing laws and amendments to the directive as evidence that it will not be abused.

However, critics have argued that Articles 11 and 13 could herald the beginning of the end for the open internet. Article 11 introduces a “link tax” which means that corporations like Google and Facebook will be required to pay news media organisations to use their headlines on their sites. Article 13 compels digital platforms to use filtering systems to block copyrighted content such as photos, videos and audio. This means online platforms are liable for content uploaded by users that violates copyright.

Over 80 signatories from civil liberties organisations and other organisations protecting freedom of the internet and freedom of expression have voiced their fears about the precedent that this sets. They argue it could potentially cause irreparable damage to our fundamental rights and freedoms, our economy, education, innovativeness, creativity, competitiveness and culture. Rather than serving the public interest, the laws will merely fuel powerful corporate interests.

Compared to small businesses, large multi-billion-dollar companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google have the flexibility and revenue to afford the necessary licenses imposed by article 11, so that links to a variety of media and news sites can be freely shared across their platforms. On the other hand, smaller social digital platforms lack the revenue and traffic to compete with industry giants. Small competitors would be forced to cut other costs necessary for the core functioning of their business to keep up and risk bankruptcy in the process. This is especially concerning in light of recent criticisms of influential online and social media giants and platforms like Facebook and Google/YouTube, which have been accused of censoring or taking down politically controversial content such as Alec Jones’ Infowars.

Laws which favour the large companies and platforms that already dominate the marketplace will only increase the impact that online censorship by these companies has in curtailing the free exchange of ideas. Though an exemption for the very smallest tech companies was added to the bill, this amounts to nothing more than a Band-Aid on top of a flesh wound.

Opponents of article 11 have expressed misgivings about how it will be applied. For example, the law does not affect non-commercial platforms. This raises uncertainty about what is considered as a commercial platform. Another concern is whether blogs or RSS feeds that aggregate headlines in a similar manner to Google News will be affected and whether the law is even practically feasible.

In 2014, Spain passed their own laws which mandated publishers to charge news aggregators for dispersing snippets from their publications. The reactions were unanticipated with Google shutting down Google News. Overall traffic to sites fell by as much as 15 per cent and local aggregators crumbled because they were unable to afford the fees.

Article 13 has also been castigated by fundamental rights organisations who denounce the provision as limiting the freedom to impart and receive information. By filtering everything that is shared on our global network, the EU is adopting similar surveillance state measures to Communist regimes like China which already impose heavy censorship on the digital space. Filters used to intercept infringements of copyrights paves the way towards filtering politically sensitive content and tempts new levels of State authority – the infrastructure for such ‘1984-esque’ manoeuvres to be introduced in the future, will already exist and can easily be appropriated or applied in other countries including Australia.

Wikipedia creator, Jimmy Wells believes article 13 marks an:

Unprecedented step towards transforming the Internet from an open sharing and innovation platform to an automated tool for spying and controlling its users.

Julia Reda, an ardent campaigner against the new measures and a member of the EU Parliament, took to Twitter to express concerns that the new filters endanger legitimate and legal content like parodies and could result in the automated removal or censorship of memes.

This is expected to occur as our current technology cannot yet accurately distinguish between every piece of content a user shares and whether it aligns to the database of copyrighted material. Musicians, who will reap the advantages of the law, have also argued that the law may have the unintended effect of diminishing collaboration and creativity in the industry.

The Copyright directive will likely receive final approval by the European Parliament in January 2019. From there, EU members will decide how to enforce these laws within their own borders. For the time being, we can only hope the EU’s decision will not unleash a new precedent for the rest of the world that will govern what we can communicate and what we can view.

Given Australian governments’ penchant for surveillance state proposals such as meta-data tracking and their recent bill which imposes hard-line requirements for ISPs and even innocent third-parties to effectively assist government agencies in procuring private information in the name of national security, this is a precedent our world does not need.

Anjali Nadaradjane is a Research Associate with the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. 

Illustration: YouTube.

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