The European Parliament has given final approval to the Copyright Directive, a controversial package of legislation designed to update copyright law in Europe for the internet age.
Members of parliament voted 348 in favor of the law and 274 against. A last-minute proposal to remove the law’s most controversial clause — Article 13 or the ‘upload filter’ — was narrowly rejected by just five votes. The directive will now be passed on to EU member states, who will have two years to translate it into national law.
The Copyright Directive has been in the works for more than two years, and has been the subject of fierce lobbying from tech giants, copyright holders, and digital rights activists.
Julia Reda, an MEP for the German Pirate Party who led much opposition to the law, said it was a “dark day for internet freedom.” Andrus Ansip, vice president of the European Commission and a key advocate for the directive, said it was a “big step ahead” that would unify Europe’s digital market while protecting “online creativity.”
Although the details of legislation will have to be decided by individual EU member states, it will likely have a huge impact on how the internet works in Europe and further afield.
Advocates of the directive say it will balance the playing field between US tech giants and European content creators, giving copyright holders more power over how big internet platforms distribute their content. But critics say the law is vague and poorly thought-out, and will end up restricting how content is shared online, stifling innovation and free speech.
The internet’s new police: the ‘link tax’ and ‘upload filter’
Despite setbacks, the most controversial clauses in the Copyright Directive — Article 11 or the ‘link tax’ and Article 13 or the ‘upload filter’ — have remained largely intact.
Article 11 lets publishers charge platforms like Google News when they display snippets of news stories, while Article 13 (renamed Article 17 in the most recent draft of the legislation) gives sites like YouTube new duties to stop users from uploading copyrighted content.
In both cases, critics say these well-intentioned laws will create trouble. Article 13, for example, could lead to the introduction of “upload filters” that will scan all user content before it’s uploaded to sites to remove copyrighted material. The law does not explicitly call for such filters, but critics say it will be an inevitability as sites seek to avoid penalties.
Experts say any filters introduced will likely be error-prone and ineffective. They also note that given the cost of deploying such technology, the law may have the opposite effect to its intent — solidifying the dominance of US tech giants over online spaces.
The effects of the link tax are equally tricky to predict. The law is mainly focused on services like Google Search and Google News, which show snippets of news articles. Google has said that if newspaper choose to levy licenses for this material it will be forced to strip back the content it shows in search and shutter Google News altogether.
Critics have accused the company of scare tactics, but previous attempts to introduce similar fees in Germany and Spain both failed.
Activists commiserate, copyright holders celebrate
The directive’s approval will be upsetting for many across Europe. More than one hundred thousand individuals protested the legislation in the past few weeks, and more than five million signed a petition calling for the removal of Article 13. Last week, sites including Reddit, PornHub, and Wikipedia also protested the legislation.
Tal Niv, vice president of law and policy at code depository GitHub, said the law posed many challengers for web developers. “Anyone developing a platform with EU users that involves sharing links or content faces great uncertainty,” said Niv in a press statement. “The ramifications include being unable to develop features that web users currently expect, and having to implement very expensive and inaccurate automated filtering.”
Google said in a statement that the directive will “lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies.” The company added that the exact implementation of the directive by member states would be crucial. “The details matter, and we look forward to working with policy makers, publishers, creators and rights holders,” said a spokesperson.
Despite these reactions, industry groups in music, publishing, and film celebrated the passage of the law. “This is a vote against content theft,” said Xavier Bouckaert, president of the European Magazine Media Association. “Publishers of all sizes and other creators will now have the right to set terms and conditions for others to re-use their content commercially, as is only fair and appropriate.”