European Union Copyright Vote Too Close to Call

European Parliament Building in Brussels

Heavyweights from the media and entertainment industries back the new law as crucial for fighting piracy, but critics warn it could “end the internet as we know it.”

The European Parliament on Wednesday will vote on wide-ranging legislation that would overhaul copyright law across the European Union.

Billed as a move to rein in tech giants and combat rampant online piracy, the copyright directive has been fiercely attacked by open-internet advocates, as well as platform operators, as a dangerous move towards censorship and over-regulation that could have many unintended consequences.

The battle over the copyright directive has seen most of Europe's film, TV and music industries — including the likes of Paul McCartney and James Blunt, alongside associations representing Europe's directors, screenwriters and authors — line up against Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as internet luminaries such as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and world wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee in a fight over who takes responsibility for protecting and paying for content online, from films and TV series, to copyrighted music playing in the background of an uploaded home video.

This European Parliament rejected an initial fast-track version of the directive this summer. The version of the legislation that will go before lawmakers Wednesday includes more than 200 proposed amendments that will set the parameters for negotiations among the parliament, the EU’s executive body and European governments.

If a law is finally passed, EU countries will have two years to implement the new rules.

The copyright directive is the latest, wide-ranging legislation aimed at regulating the internet, following the recently enacted EU web-privacy law, known as GDPR, and EU rules requiring search engines to remove material as requested by individuals in certain cases. In December, the European Commission will also vote on whether to require online streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon to comply with EU quotas requiring their libraries to feature at least 30 percent local content.

The fighting over the law has been particularly fierce and, ahead of Wednesday's vote, the result is still too close to call.

The focus of most of the debate has been on Article 13 of the directive, which would regulate the liability of platforms hosting copyright-protected works, and on Article 11, which enhances rules covering payments to publishers when digital platforms reproduce articles, or parts of articles online.

Many European creatives back Article 13, which would make online platforms liable in some form for copyright infringement by their users.

At this year's Venice Film Festival, some 165 screenwriters and directors, including Jacques Audiard, Mike Leigh, Laszlo Nemes and Agnieszka Holland, called for the directive to be adopted “to ensure freedom of expression and independence of creators as well as authors’ rights (and) the principle of fair and proportionate remuneration.”

More than 18,700 creators from over 100 countries worldwide have signed the joint declaration from the Federation of European Film Directors, The Federation of Screenwriters in Europe, and the Society of Audiovisual Authors supporting the new legislation.

Media companies, particularly publishers, are pushing for the adoption of Article 11, which would extend digital copyright to cover the ledes in news stories and news snippets used by the likes of Google News to link to articles. German publishing giants Axel Springer and Hubert Burda have been lobbying hard for this, arguing their business model has been gutted by Google and Facebook and Google sharing their published materials while providing little or no revenue in return.

But Gus Rossi, global policy director at internet think tank Public Knowledge in Washington, fears the EU copyright directive could “set a dangerous precedent” for online regulation by introducing a new level of censorship. He warns of “copyright filters” that could block free speech such as satire and political commentary under the guise of preventing piracy.

“The copyright directive is a one-size-fits-all approach to try and correct some of the problems created by some of the dominant platforms,” Rossi says, “But whether they intend it or not, the consequence will be a loss for users, who will have fewer options and less freedom of speech.”

Rossi notes that automatic filtering of copyrighted work “doesn't work” because even the most powerful platforms such as Google and Facebook cannot design systems to differentiate fair-use — a commentary on a music video that cites the copyright-protected video say — from illegal piracy.

On Article 11 and the issue of charging platforms for using news snippets or links to online stories, Rossi points to similar legislation in Spain and Germany that broadly failed.

“We are worried about this directive because, as we've already seen with the GDPR, EU policy can often shape internet policy worldwide, even in the U.S.,” Rossi says. “Because of its market power, the European Union can set dangerous precedents for U.S. policy in the future.”

The European Parliament is set to vote on the copyright directive Wednesday afternoon.