This article was published on July 2, 2018

The EU’s disastrous copyright reform will sabotage internet culture

The backward policy adopted earlier this month threatens the memes, parodies, and fan communities that make the internet great

The EU’s disastrous copyright reform will sabotage internet culture
Raegan MacDonald
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Raegan MacDonald

Originally from Canada, Raegan is based in Brussels, Belgium, where she leads Mozilla’s Public Policy work in the EU, and specialises in cop Originally from Canada, Raegan is based in Brussels, Belgium, where she leads Mozilla’s Public Policy work in the EU, and specialises in copyright, net neutrality, privacy and data protection. Prior to joining Mozilla, Raegan established and led Access Now's Brussels Office. Prior to that, Raegan worked with European Digital Rights (EDRi), an association civil and human rights groups from across Europe. Raegan is a graduate of the University of Vienna (Austria) and the University of Leipzig (Germany) where she received her Masters in Global Studies.

When you say “copyright law,” people’s eyes glaze over. It’s not the most interesting topic. It’s obscure and currently winding its way through the complex bureaucracy that is the EU Parliament — an equally arcane process.

And yet there’s ample reason to pay attention. Because the outcome of the copyright vote on July 4 and 5 (a re-do after it passed in committee) could be really, really bad for the internet as we know it. Indeed, how the vote unfolds will impact countless, more interesting topics — from selfies and online entertainment to popular parody and memes. Here’s why.

Let’s start with how copyright law directly affects everyday internet users. Some of these activities, or a version of them, are things you’ve probably done recently: uploading a new Twitter profile picture of you wearing your favorite Star Wars t-shirt. Sharing a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower. Live streaming an extract of a concert on Facebook Live. Sharing a “Game of Thrones” meme on Reddit. Or watching that so-funny parody video on YouTube.

Some of these activities actually infringe on European copyright rules, while others are allowed under the parody or quotation exceptions. Do you know which is which? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: If the copyright rules the European Parliament just adopted become law, you may never be able to post any of this content online again with the same freedom. Further, lots of your favorite existing memes, videos, and podcasts may disappear altogether from the digital world.

This is the result of the filtering technology that the adopted copyright rules demand online platforms put in place. As you can imagine, these filtering tools probably don’t know which content is parody and which isn’t.

Lots of the pictures, videos, and soundtracks that have become part of daily online conversations — say, Carpool Karaoke or the One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor meme — would now be blocked by online platforms preemptively, in effect putting in place aggressive surveillance and censorship systems across the internet. That “Westworld” analysis on YouTube you love? It includes snippets of the theme song, so will likely get caught in the copyright net. That fascinating Reddit thread with “Game of Thrones” fan theories? It features screenshots from the show — it’s caught in the net, also.

The fight over this legislation has been construed as giant rightsholders versus online platforms. But in reality, the true victims will be creators and fans themselves. There’s a bitter irony at play: The directors, actors, songwriters, and artists who benefit from the viral sharing of their creations are now pitted against their fans, who in fact do some of the most efficient online marketing artists can hope for.

The outcome of this copyright “reform” process will impact more than memes and our everyday internet activity. It will also have another, more insidious impact: further entrenching the richest and biggest platforms in the online market. Only companies like Google and Facebook have the technical and financial means to operate such advanced, sprawling filter systems. Ironically, the companies at which this law is aimed are already filtering content — and so will have a competitive advantage vis-a-vis their smaller rivals and startups, who will need to invest heavily to comply with the law.

This occurs at the height of the so-called techlash, where consumers and policy makers are increasingly concerned about the growing power of these massive platforms. So the EU Parliament’s decision to grant even more power to these companies seems doubly obtuse.

Clearly, the EU is poised to take a highly flawed approach to copyright: one where false positives abound, where a “guilty until proven innocent” tool makes decisions about your content, and where all platforms — from coding repositories and comment sections to meme pages and deviant art — will be threatened.

This is especially disheartening only weeks after the EU implemented the GDPR and became a standard setter for privacy. It seemed Parliament was getting tech policy right — but not in this case.

Fortunately, the campaign in Brussels is not over yet. Another crucial vote will take place in the European Parliament on July 4-5. The voices of European users, creators, and small companies have been largely ignored, but there’s a final chance to show EU lawmakers that we don’t want to cede the internet to giant rightsholders and large platforms. Call your Member of the EU Parliament now to let them know how you feel.

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