An EU committee has approved two new copyright rules that campaigners warn could destroy the internet as we know it.
The two controversial new rules – known as Article 11 and Article 13 – introduce wide-ranging new changes to the way the web works.
Article 13 has been criticised by campaigners who claim that it could force internet companies to "ban memes". It requires that all websites check posts against a database of copyrighted work, and remove those that are flagged.
That could mean memes – which often use images taken from films or TV shows – could be removed by websites. The system is also likely to go wrong, campaigners say, pointing to previous examples where automated systems at YouTube have taken down a variety of entirely innocent posts.
Smaller sites might not even be able to maintain such a complicated infrastructure for scanning through posts, and therefore might not be able to continue to function, activists claim. Some companies and sites have already had to shut down as a result of the EU's new GDPR data rules.
It has been opposed by a whole host of internet experts, many of them involved with the creation of the central technologies and services of the internet. An open letter published last week was signed by more than 70 experts, including web creator Tim Berners-Lee, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and internet pioneer Vint Cerf.
"By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet, from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users," that letter read.
The authors note that copyright is an important part of law, which exists to encourage creators to ensure their work is put out into the world. But the automatic systems being considered by the EU are not the right ways of controlling that, they argue.
"We support the consideration of measures that would improve the ability for creators to receive fair remuneration for the use of their works online," the letter reads. "But we cannot support Article 13, which would mandate Internet platforms to embed an automated infrastructure for monitoring and censorship deep into their networks."
Copyright law does include exceptions for specific use of some material, such as parodies. But those protections are different in each EU country, and automated blocking systems are unlikely to be able to spot them anyway – leading to suggestions that many memes will be taken down simply because it is safest to "err on the side of blocking", according to German MEP Julia Reda.
Article 11 introduces a "link tax", requiring that internet companies get permission from publishers to use a snippet of their work. On websites like Google and Twitter, for instance, a small part of the article is usually shown before someone clicks into it entirely – but, under the new rule, those technology companies would have get permission and perhaps even pay to use that excerpt.
A letter signed by 169 academics argued that the new rule "would likely impede the free flow of information that is of vital importance to democracy".
Though the new rules have been approved by the EU's JURI commission, they will not go into effect until they are passed by the European Parliament. Campaigners urged MEPs to reject the regulations.
“Article 13 must go. The EU Parliament will have another chance to remove this dreadful law," said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group.
“The EU Parliament’s duty is to defend citizens from unfair and unjust laws. MEPs must reject this law, which would create a Robo-copyright regime intended to zap any image, text, meme or video that appears to include copyright material, even when it is entirely legal material.”
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