6 min read

Tomorrow, on Wednesday 12 September, the European Parliament will vote on amendments to the EU Copyright Bill, first proposed back in September 2016. This bill could have a huge impact on open source, software engineering, and even the future of the internet.

Back in July, MEPs voted down a digital copyright bill that was incredibly restrictive. It asserted the rights of large media organizations to tightly control links to their stories, copyright filters on user generated content.

The vote tomorrow is an opportunity to amend aspects of the directive – that means many of the elements that were rejected in July could still find their way through.

What parts of the EU copyright directive are most important for software developers?

There are some positive aspects of the directive. To a certain extent, it could be seen as evidence of the European Union continuing a broader project to protect citizens by updating digital legislation – a move that GDPR began back in May 2018.

However, there are many unintended consequences of the legislation. It’s unclear whether the negative impact is down to any level of malicious intent from law makers, or is simply reflective of a significant level of ignorance about how the web and software works.

There are 3 articles within the directive that developers need to pay particular attention to.

Article 13 of the EU copyright directive: copyright filters

Article 13 of the directive has perhaps had the most attention. Essentially, it will require “information society service providers” – user-generated information and content platforms – to use “recognition technologies” to protect against copyright infringement.

This could have a severe impact on sites like GitHub, and by extension, the very philosophy of open collaboration and sharing on which they’re built. It’s for this reason that GitHub has played a big part in educating Brussels law makers about the possible consequences of the legislation.

Last week, the platform hosted an event to discuss what can be done about tomorrow’s vote. In it, Marten Mickos, CEO of cybersecurity company Hacker One gave a keynote speech, saying that “Article 13 is just crap. It will benefit nobody but the richest, the wealthiest, the biggest – those that can spend tens of millions or hundreds of millions on building some amazing filters that will somehow know whether something is copyrighted or not.”

A number MEPs in Brussels have, fortunately, proposed changes that would exclude software development platforms to instead focus the legislation on sites where users upload music and video.

However, for those that believe strongly in an open internet, even these amendments could be a small compromise that not only places an unnecessary burden on small sites that simply couldn’t build functional copyright filters, but also opens a door to censorship online.

A better alternative could be to ditch copyright filters and instead opt for licensing agreements instead. This is something put forward by German politician Julia Reda – if you’re interested in policy amendments you can read them in detail here.

Julia Reda, MEP
Image via commons.wikimedia.org

Julia Reda is a member of the Pirate Party in Germany – she’s a vocal advocate of internet freedoms and an important voice in the fight against many of the directive (she wants the directive to be dropped in its entirety). She’s put together a complete list of amendments and alternatives here.

Article 11 of the EU Copyright Directive: the “link tax”

Article 11 follows the same spirit of article 13 of the bill. It gives large press organizations more control over how their content is shared and linked to online.

It has been called the “link tax” – it could mean that you would need a license to link to content. According to news sites, this law would allow them to charge internet giants like Facebook and Google that link to their content.

As Cory Doctorow points out in an article written for Motherboard in June, only smaller platforms would lose out – the likes of Facebook and Google could easily manage the cost.

But there are other problems with article 11. It could, not only, as Doctorow also writes, “crush scholarly and encyclopedic projects like Wikipedia that only publish material that can be freely shared,” but it could also “inhibit political discussions”. This is because the ‘link tax’ will essentially allow large media organizations to fully control how and where their content is shared. “Links are facts” Doctorow argues, meaning that links are a vital component within public discourse, which allows the public to know who thinks what, and who said what.

Article 3 of the EU Copyright Directive: restrictions on data mining

Article 3 of the directive hasn’t received as much attention as the two above, but it does nevertheless have important implications for the data mining and analytics landscape.

Essentially, this proportion of the directive was originally aimed at posing restrictions on the data that can be mined for insights except in specific cases of scientific research. This was rejected by MEPs.

However, it is still an area of fierce debate. Those that oppose it argue that restrictions on text and data mining could seriously hamper innovation and hold back many startups for whom data is central to the way they operate.

However, given the relative success of GDPR in restoring some level of integrity to data (from a citizen’s perspective), there are aspects of this article that might be worth building on as a basis for a compromise. With trust in a tech world at an all time low, this could be a stepping stone to a more transparent and harmonious digital domain.

An open internet is worth fighting for – we all depend on it

The difficulty unpicking the directive is that it’s not immediately clear who its defending. On the one hand, EU legislators will see this as something that defends citizens from everything that they think is wrong with the digital world (and, let’s be honest, there are things that are wrong with it).

Equally, those organizations lobbying for the change will, as already mentioned, want to present this as a chance to knock back tech corporations that have had it easy for too long.

Ultimately, though, the intention doesn’t really matter. What really matters are the consequences of this legislation, which could well be catastrophic. The important thing is that the conversation isn’t owned by well-intentioned law makers that don’t really understand what’s at stake, or media conglomerates with their own interests in protecting their content from the perceived ‘excesses’ of a digital world whose creativity is mistaken for hostility.

If you’re an EU citizen, get in touch with your MEP today. Visit saveyourinternet.eu to help the campaign.

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