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Europe’s controversial new copyright law unsettles U.S. tech giants

A woman in Leipzig, Germany, protests Article 13 of the new copyright law. (Peter Endig/AP)

BRUSSELS — The European Parliament on Tuesday approved a sweeping set of changes to copyright laws that could force big tech companies to be legally responsible for the content that users upload to their websites.

Once the rules go into effect, Internet platforms will have to be much more active in policing content posted by ordinary users. Advocates of the law say it is needed to rein in an anything-goes approach to intellectual property online. Critics say it will crimp expression on the Internet and could lead to censorship.

The new rules, approved in a 348-to-274 vote, would force Google News and other aggregators to pay publishers for certain types of links to their articles. Services that offer users the chance to upload their own content, such as YouTube and Facebook, could be liable for videos that violate copyrights. E.U. governments are expected to approve the rules next month, which would put them on course to go into effect in two years.

European Union lawmakers voted March 26 for reforms to copyright rules that will affect Google and Facebook. (Video: Reuters)

The European law differs from U.S. rules, which provide broad impunity to tech companies when copyrighted material appears on their platforms, so long as they meet certain restrictions, including removing infringing content in a timely manner and taking action against repeat offenders.

But advocates and critics agree that the changes in Europe could create a fundamental shift in the way the Internet operates, and both sides lobbied heavily ahead of the decision. Musicians, news publishers and other content creators fought for the new law. Internet freedom advocates, along with big tech companies, scrambled to fend it off.

“Parliament has chosen to put an end to the existing digital Wild West by establishing modern rules that are in step with technological development,” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said in a statement.

Although Tuesday’s changes are a wide-ranging overhaul of European copyright law — the first in two decades — two aspects received the most attention. Article 11, dubbed the “link tax” or “snippet tax” by critics, would require aggregators to pay licensing fees when they include excerpts of content when they link to articles on other sites.

Another element of the law, Article 13, makes Internet companies legally responsible for the content uploaded to their platforms. The companies say they will have to implement filters that inevitably will also snag legal content alongside copyright violations.

The law sparked protests among young people in Germany ahead of its passage. Wikipedia and other websites blacked out parts of their content in some E.U. countries to object to the possibility of changes.

A “dark day for Internet freedom,” tweeted Julia Reda, a German member of the European Parliament who helped organize opposition to the bill.

The decision drew a sharp rebuke from the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that represents tech giants including Amazon, Facebook and Google. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Rules requiring sites to pay a “snippet tax” for excerpting news stories “risks restricting freedom of information online,” the CCIA said, while the new copyright rules increase “the incentives for platforms to over-filter and over-remove users’ uploads.”

“We fear it will harm online innovation and restrict online freedoms in Europe. We urge Member States to thoroughly assess and try to minimize the consequences of the text when implementing it,” Maud Sacquet, senior policy manager for the CCIA in Europe, said in a statement.

Google responded in its own statement: “The Copyright Directive is improved but will still lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies. The details matter, and we look forward to working with policy makers, publishers, creators and rights holders as EU member states move to implement these new rules.”

Tony Romm in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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