Image: Wikimedia

With Tumblr’s decision this week to ban porn on its platform, everyone’s getting a firsthand look at how bad automated content filters are at the moment. Lawmakers in the European Union want a similar system to filter copyrighted works and, despite expert consensus that this will just fuck up the internet, the legislation moves forward. Now some of the biggest platforms on the web insist we must stop it.

YouTube, Reddit, and Twitch have recently come out publicly against the EU’s new Copyright Directive, arguing that the impending legislation could be devastating to their businesses, their users, and the internet at large.

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The Copyright Directive is the first update to the group of nation’s copyright law since 2001, and it’s a major overhaul that is intended to claw back some of the money that copyright holders believe they’ve lost since the internet use exploded around the globe. Fundamentally, its provisions are supposed to punish big platforms like Google for profiting off of copyright infringement and siphon some income back into the hands of those to which it rightfully belongs.

Unfortunately, the way it’s designed will likely make it more difficult for smaller platforms, harm the free exchange information, kill memes, make fair use more difficult to navigate—all the while, tech giants will have the resources to survive the wreckage. You don’t have to take my word for it, listen to Tim-Berners Lee, the father of the world wide web, and the other 70 top technologists that signed a letter arguing against the legislation back in June.

So far, this issue hasn’t received the kind of attention that, say, net neutrality did, at least in part because it’s very complicated to explain and it takes a while for these kinds of things to sink in. We’ve outlined the details in the past on multiple occasions. The main thing to understand is that critics take issue with two pieces of the legislation.

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Article 11, better known as a “link tax,” would require online platforms to purchase a license to link out to other sites or quotes from articles. That’s the part that threatens the free spread of information.

Article 13 dictates that online platforms install some sort of monitoring system that lets copyright holders upload their work for automatic detection. If something sneaks by the system’s filters, the platform could face full penalties for copyright infringement. For example, a SpongeBob meme could be flagged and blocked because of its source image belonging to Nickelodeon; or a dumb vlog could be flagged and blocked because there’s a sponge in the background and the dumb filter thought it was SpongeBob.

A crucial problem with the copyright directive is that it’s incredibly vague and doesn’t explain how this system must be implemented. The content filters would presumably resemble YouTube’s Content ID system, which the company has spent tens of millions of dollars to develop and it still does a terrible job. Algorithms are just very limited in what they can do well, right now. And because the EU isn’t defining exactly how the filtering system would work, it’s defenders can claim they aren’t saying you’d have to use a system similar to YouTube’s Content ID. Maybe it’ll just happen through magic? Even YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said this system will be unworkable in a letter to YouTube creators in October.

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Wojcicki specifically pointed out that Article 13 threatens the livelihood of people who upload content. She wrote:

The proposal could force platforms, like YouTube, to allow only content from a small number of large companies. It would be too risky for platforms to host content from smaller original content creators, because the platforms would now be directly liable for that content. We realize the importance of all rights holders being fairly compensated, which is why we built Content ID and a platform to pay out all types of content owners. But the unintended consequences of article 13 will put this ecosystem at risk. We are committed to working with the industry to find a better way.

Of course, supporters of the copyright directive will say that it’s designed to curb platforms like YouTube’s ability to profit from copyright violations. But that wouldn’t explain why a coalition of copyright holder associations, including the international branch of the MPAA, came out against the directive in a letter on December 1.

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Last week, Reddit threw its considerable weight into the arena and condemned the legislation, as well. It acknowledged that it’s an American company with an audience primarily in the U.S., but this is an issue that affects the global web with its virtually non-existent borders. In a blog post, Reddit wrote:

These requirements eliminate the previous safe harbors that allowed us the leeway to give users the benefit of the doubt when they shared content. But under the new Directive, activity that is core to Reddit, like sharing links to news articles, or the use of existing content for creative new purposes (r/photoshopbattles, anyone?) would suddenly become questionable under the law, and it is not clear right now that there are feasible mitigating actions that we could take while preserving core site functionality. Even worse, smaller but similar attempts in various countries in Europe in the past have shown that such efforts have actually harmed publishers and creators.

The latest company to come out against the EU Copyright Directive seems to be Twitch. The livestreaming company has allegedly been circulating a letter to its creators about the legislation, but when we asked the company for confirmation we did not get a reply. The alleged letter explains the path the directive has taken up to this point and issues a warning that the whole enterprise could be at risk. It reads in part:

You and your communities have worked hard to build this incredible place, and it’s worth protecting. The fallout from Article 13 isn’t limited to creators in the European Union. Everyone stands to lose if content coming out of and going into the region is throttled.

[...]

Because Article 13 makes Twitch liable for any potential copyright infringement activity with uploaded works, Twitch could be forced to impose filters and monitoring measures on all works uploaded by residents of the EU. This means you would need to provide copyright ownership information, clearances, or take other steps to prove that you comply with thorny and complicated copyright laws. Creators would very likely have to contend with the false positives associated with such measures, and it would also limit what content we can make available to viewers in the EU.

[...]

Operating under these constraints means that a variety of content would be much more difficult to publish, including commentary, criticism, fan works, and parodies. Communities and viewers everywhere would also suffer, with fewer viewer options for entertainment, critique, and more.

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Even if these platforms are making these statements out of blind self-interest, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Julia Reda, a Member of European Parliament from the Pirate Party who has opposed the directive from the beginning, recently explained why she doesn’t think YouTube’s solutions are helpful while maintaining that the whole thing is screwed up anyway. In a blog post on Monday, Reda applauded the special interest groups that are waking up to the inherent problems in the bill. “Rather than solving a specific, well-identified problem with a well-assessed solution, lawmakers attempted to use copyright law to rebalance power between several big industries, with no regard for the collateral damage they were causing,” she wrote. “Let’s drop Article 13 altogether and send the directive back to the drawing board.”

Further complicating the ability to raise awareness and gather opposition to the directive is the elaborate parliamentary process involved in enacting it. In September, European Parliament overwhelmingly approved it. Now, representatives from the Commission, Council, and the European Parliament are involved in Trilogue negotiations to settle on various amendments. Another full vote is expected early in 2019. Then a final vote is expected by the end of Parliament’s current term in April.

If you’re in Europe, you can call your representative and express your opinion on the directive. Most of our audience is in the U.S., and all I can tell you Americans is to encourage your European buddies to get involved while sitting back and experiencing what it’s like to have someone on the other side of the globe make decisions that will affect you, for a change.

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