Europe's New Copyright Rules Would Force YouTube, Facebook to Block Protected Content

European Parliament Building in Brussels

Supporters of the Copyright Directive claim it will force internet giants like Google's YouTube and Facebook to share online revenues, while opponents fear censorship.

The European Union this week published the final text for the overhaul of its controversial copyright directive, proposing a series of sweeping changes that, if the directive is passed, will force online platforms like YouTube and Facebook to block copyright-protected material when it is uploaded to their sites, and to bear legal responsibility if they do not.

The final text of the rules has to be approved by the EU's legal affairs committee — a mere formality, expected to take place on Monday — before going to the European Parliament for final confirmation. The vote is expected before EU elections in May.

The draft legislation has been tweaked slightly in its new version, but it retains the core elements that — depending on your position — could wreak havoc on the internet as we know it or could hugely benefit copyright owners large and small.

The two more contentious portions of the legislation are Article 13 and Article 11. Article 13 requires internet services with at least 5 million average monthly users to show they have made their “best efforts” to prevent the upload of content flagged as copyright-protected by rights holders. If they fail to comply, sites can be held liable for copyright infringement by their users on their platform.

Google-owned YouTube is likely to be the hardest hit by this new law, as it challenges the company's entire business model of user-created content, often involving material, as with memes and parodies, that is copyright-protected.

“Copyright reform needs to benefit everyone — including European creators and consumers, small publishers and platforms,” YouTube said in an initial statement following the publication of the final draft of the law. “We’ll be studying the final text of the EU copyright directive and it will take some time to determine next steps. The details will matter, so we welcome the chance to continue conversations across Europe.”

YouTube has been among the most vocal opponents of the EU's copyright directive and has lobbied furiously against the legislation. They warn that the only way to properly comply with the new law would be to implement upload filters to block potentially illegal content and would severally restrict free speech.

But the directive, in particular Article 13, has been broadly welcomed by the creative community, with most associations representing authors and traditional content creators — including the federation of European film directors, the international federation of actors and the federation of screenwriters in Europe signing an open letter calling the directive “a crucial step [towards creating] a level playing field for all creative sectors in the European Digital Single Market, whilst giving consumers better access to more content in a secure environment.” They warned legislators that failing to adopt the directive “would mean missing a historic opportunity, be extremely detrimental to European culture.”

Article 11, which critics have dubbed a "link tax," would force news aggregation and search sites, such as Google and Facebook, to pay publishers for showing news snippets or linking to news stories on other sites. Its impact on the news media, in Europe and elsewhere, could be substantial. A similar version of this legislation was implemented in Germany, but was broadly unsuccessful.

The wording of the legislation will require sites and individual users (on monetized blogs for example) to acquire a license before publishing more than “single words of very short extracts” of news stories from other sites.

For both Article 11 and Article 13, the real impact will be determined by how courts across Europe interpret the somewhat vague wording of the copyright directive. What exactly the EU means by “best efforts” and “short extracts” could determine if this new law is the start of a new internet era in Europe, or much sound and fury signifying little.