The European Parliament approved changes to digital copyright rules Wednesday designed to protect the content of publishers and artists on the Web, advancing a contentious battle between tech companies and creative industries over the future of free expression and intellectual property online.
European lawmakers who support the plan have called it a much-needed update to copyright law for the digital age, in which massive technology companies have upended traditional business models in areas such as music, movies and news, leaving the companies and creators such as artists without fair compensation. The new rules, proponents say, would ensure that authors and artists receive their due recognition, payment and protection. Social media companies that rely on user-generated content, including YouTube and Facebook, and news aggregators such as Google News would be affected by the proposed law.
“I am very glad that despite the very strong lobbying campaign by the Internet giants, there is now a majority in the full house backing the need to protect the principle of fair pay for European creatives,” Axel Voss, a member of Parliament who is leading efforts to establish the new rules, said in a news release Wednesday.
In a Q&A published after the vote, Voss said that the Internet landscape has placed creative workers in a “miserable situation.” “Their work is used by huge platforms who make a lot of profit with it. But the rights-holders themselves often do not get a share of this profit. Huge American platforms make money whilst our creatives die out. This is why we have to strengthen their rights by making the platforms responsible.”
Věra Jourová, the European Commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, told The Washington Post that individuals and online organizations should be paid for their work, offering an example of journalists reporting from the Middle East, risking their lives, only to have their stories taken over and spread online without compensation. “That’s why from the side of the commission I am glad that the European Parliament gave it a chance,” she said, noting that the dialogue over the proposal will continue.
Critics say the rules will stifle free expression and creativity on the Internet, inviting a new censorship regime that will give media agencies and social networks concentrated power to decide what is permissible to share online.
The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, and the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, have opposed the rules, arguing that they are contrary to the tenets of the Internet as an open platform. They have said that by putting the onus on tech platforms to police copyright infringements, the rules would require elaborate and onerous filtering technology to be applied to online platforms, affecting tech investments and entire business models. “The damage that this may do to the free and open Internet as we know it is hard to predict, but in our opinions could be substantial,” said a group of Internet pioneers in a recent letter to the president of the European Parliament.
Under the current system, tech platforms are responsible for removing copyrighted material if a rights-holder flags the misuse of their content. But the proposed rules would mandate that platforms prevent users from uploading unlicensed protected material in the first place.
While similar copyright reforms don’t have the same level of government backing in the United States, a major newspaper industry trade group has proposed a new law that would grant news outlets the ability to collectively negotiate with dominant tech firms, such as Google and Facebook, for stronger intellectual property protections and a more equitable share of revenue.
The copyright push in Europe is the latest front in a series of regulatory battles pitting Brussels against Silicon Valley. A major privacy law in Europe went into effect earlier this year, designed to give E.U. citizens more control over the personal data collected by Web companies. European officials have also hit Google with a record antitrust fine, and they are pursuing an additional anti-competition investigation against the company.
The proposed copyright rules will have spillover effects for American users, detractors say. Complying with the copyright changes would require massive investments from technology companies, disproportionately affecting smaller European firms with fewer resources while solidifying the power of Silicon Valley giants, critics say. They also point out concerns that the prescreening of user-generated content for copyright violations may entangle American users in new systems of automated surveillance and media censorship.
Last week, YouTube's chief business officer, Robert Kyncl, said in a blog post addressed to “creators” that some parts of the proposal may undermine the new media economy, potentially discouraging or prohibiting platforms from hosting content posted by users. “This outcome would not only stifle your creative freedom, it could have severe, negative consequences for the fans, the communities and the revenue you have all worked so hard to create,” Kyncl warned.
Google, which owns YouTube, told The Post in a statement: “People want access to quality news and creative content online. We’ve always said that more innovation and collaboration are the best way to achieve a sustainable future for the European news and creative sectors, and we’re committed to continued close partnership with these industries.”
The digital copyright proposal will have to be adopted by the European Union’s 28 member states before becoming law.