Being in my late thirties, I’m part of the neither-here-nor-there generation: as a young child, the ‘internet’ was just a word to me – something vague, nothing I understood or knew anything about. As a teenager, the door to a whole new world was opened up to me. For that reason, I grew to value the freedom that the internet offers. The internet isn’t ‘owned’ by any government, but a tool which we can all use for whatever lawful means we wish.
The thought of being able to compete against anyone around the world – whether at a board game like chess or Stratego, or even in massive online multiplayer games with literally millions of participants – was a new world to me. Having information available at my fingertips, the ability to contact people across the world about any common interest, to research anything that takes my fancy, is something I appreciate all the more because it wasn’t available to me as a child with a bulky TRS-80 computer which could be used for little more than practice for programming in BASIC.
When I hear about governmental plans to regulate the internet, then (if they go beyond what is necessary to keep people safe from criminal activity) it fills me with a special kind of dread because it threatens not just our freedom of speech, but our freedom of thought.
As a member of the European Parliament, I’m now being bombarded by emails, tweets and phone calls demanding that I vote against the vaguely-worded Articles 11 and 13 of the European Copyright Directive. Some of the comments over-egg the danger slightly, but even so, it’s a pernicious piece of legislation which could completely change the way the internet works. The founder of the internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has written an open letter describing it as “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”.
Article 13 would require internet platforms, such as Microsoft or Google, to install automated filters to remove copyrighted content. Such filters will by definition end up removing content erroneously; the law provides for ‘fair use’ and certain exemptions including parody. Things which are legal will be removed from the internet by such crawling filters – they’ll err on the side of caution, deleting more than necessary. It’s just not possible to write an algorithm which distinguishes one from the other. Whilst ‘appeal’ mechanisms will exist, they’ll be too slow and cumbersome to be of any use. Memes, for example, could virtually disappear from the internet altogether. A law requiring providers to install such ‘censorship machines’ is chilling; there will be little or no accountability in practice. In fact, it’ll become a typical EU ‘closed shop’ stitch-up: the tech giants will be able to comply with ease; smaller companies and tech start-ups will be in big trouble. As ever, the EU ‘looks after’ big business by introducing legislation which hammers small business competitors. Then, in return, those same big businesses reciprocate by supporting the EU (like Airbus, for example, where the World Trade Organisation recently ruled that the EU Commission had offered billions in unfair subsidies – yet Airbus’ pro-EU utterances went almost unchallenged). But of course, small business can be destroyed because it can’t afford to pay huge sums to lobbyists.
Article 11 isn’t much better; the so-called ‘link tax’ regurgitates failed laws in Spain and Germany aimed at creating a new copyright rule for linking to, or quoting, news stories. In so doing, they’ll create a commercial incentive for spreading ‘fake news’ whilst disincentivising and taxing accurate information.
The EU is planning a Directive, not a Regulation, meaning that it’s not preparing a standard one-size-fits-all law. Consequently, it invalidates any argument that EU-wide action is necessary. And yet, because European politics is so remote from the people, this threat is going virtually unnoticed. When the internet was threatened (albeit in a different context) in the USA, it led to huge news and high profile opposition.
The Copyright Directive is an unnecessary intrusion. The language is so vague that we don’t know exactly how bad the damage will be, but when the founder of the internet is sufficiently concerned to speak out, it suggests that utmost caution is needed. I will, of course, be opposing this vigorously in the European Parliament. The Brexit referendum notwithstanding, whilst we’re still in the EU, its legislation remains capable of causing serious damage.