Pepe the Frog, the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme and Arthur’s balled-up fist are all under threat. So are reactions GIFs such as the one of a confused Zach Galifianakis, or the clip of Steve Carrell shouting ‘No!’ in The Office.
EU lawmakers may inadvertently destroy the internet’s robust meme culture with a proposed law designed to fight online piracy. One article in the legislation would force online platforms such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to automatically censor copyrighted content uploaded by anyone who isn’t licensed to share it.
Activists say the law will effectively kill the text-and-photo jokes known as memes, which often feature images from copyrighted TV shows and movies. The law would also have a profound impact on the sharing of fan art, video-game streaming, movie trailer reactions and a wide range of pop culture-focused blogs created by users within Europe and beyond, in countries such as the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s a blunt instrument and it’s going to lead to lots of over-censorship,” Jim Killock, head of the U.K.-based Open Rights Group, told Global News.
“It could be disastrous.”
Killock is among the many activists and internet titans who have condemned the so-called Copyright Directive, which was passed by the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs last week. The Copyright Detective is expected to be discussed in EU Parliament sometime next week before it is potentially put forward to become a law.
“Creators and news publishers must adapt to the world of the internet as it works today,” rapporteur Axel Voss, a Member of European Parliament (MEP), said in a committee news release.
“The committee position aims to ensure that widely recognized and observed copyright principles apply to the online world, too.”
Articles under fire
The Copyright Directive legislation is primarily designed to take aim at online piracy, but two articles in the proposal have stoked outrage online.
Under the potentially meme-killing Article 13, internet platforms would be responsible for automatically censoring and removing any unlicensed content uploaded by users, including videos, photos, source code or music.
The internet platform would be legally responsible for any breaches, meaning the everyday user (i.e. you) wouldn’t be charged for posting a meme. You would just be censored from doing so altogether.
Article 11 of the legislation has also come under fire for requiring platforms to pay a licensing fee in order to feature photos and links from online publishers. Opponents have called it a “link tax.”
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Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and more than 70 other internet leaders came out against Article 13 in an open letter earlier this month.
The open letter describes Article 13 as an “imminent threat to the future of this global network.”
“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,” the letter says.
The letter argues that the impact of the law will fall heavily on “ordinary users” who upload photos, videos and computer code to the internet every day.
A lobbying group representing Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and several other major online platforms has also come out against the law.
Several EU-based media organizations hailed the Copyright Directive in a joint statement last week, calling it “a crucial stand for the future of a free, independent press.”
“The internet is only as useful as the content that populates it,” the release said.
It also applauded Article 11, known as the “neighbouring right,” for “encouraging further investment in professional, diverse, fact-checked content for the enrichment and enjoyment of everyone, everywhere.”
Killock says he hopes EU lawmakers re-think Article 13 and Article 11 before passing the Copyright Directive into law.
“The laudable intention is to reduce copyright infringement on platforms in Europe, and to help rights holders monetize their content,” he said.
“That’s all very laudable, but the question is whether that can be done in the way they hope.”
Not just a European problem
When the EU passed its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law, North American users saw the impact in their inboxes. Companies based all around the world — not just in Europe — sent updated terms and conditions to their users, so they could avoid being blocked in the EU.
Some websites, such as the L.A. Times, found themselves shut out in the EU because they hadn’t sufficiently complied with the new GDPR rules.
The impact of Article 13 could be much the same, with online platforms censoring content uploaded in North America out of concern that it would violate EU rules by allowing that content to be shared with European users.
“It’s just impractical to imagine that things would be filtered in one place and not another,” Killock said.
“I think that bluntly, this will end up applying everywhere,” he said.
Killock adds that some social-media platforms might resort to licensing the copyrighted content themselves, so they can allow users to share certain memes to their hearts’ content.
Laura Tribe, executive director of the Canada-based internet advocacy group OpenMedia, has also come out to condemn the Copyright Directive.
“This is a major blow — not just for Europe, but for everyone around the world who wants to keep the internet open and free, and protect free expression online,” Tribe said in a statement last week.
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A slippery slope toward censorship
Killock says Article 13 could set a “dark and dangerous” precedent of automatic censorship online, by encouraging social-media platforms to set up automatic censorship programs.
“Extremist and hate speech — they’ll be next,” he said.
“Once you’ve got political monitoring in advance of what you’d say online… you’ll find yourself in a difficult and dangerous place,” Killock said. “That’s where this is going.”
It’s unclear exactly how these censorship mechanisms will work, other than that the committee will require an “easy redress system” for users to complain if their content is unfairly blocked.
The Legal Affairs Committee says the proposed law is meant to maintain freedom of expression, particularly for journalists.
The committee also says it “sought to ensure that copyright law is observed online without unfairly hampering the freedom of expression that has come to define the internet.”
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— With files from Reuters