On Thursday, the European Parliament rejected a controversial proposal to overhaul the European Union’s copyright laws that critics say would significantly damage internet freedom.
The legislation — dubbed the Copyright Directive — was rejected by a vote of 318-278. That means the proposed rules, which passed the European Parliament’s legal branch last month, will now be debated in September.
The proposal is an attempt to modernize copyright laws for the digital age, and its proponents — which include high-profile musicians like David Guetta and Paul McCartney — say it will protect artists from having their work stolen on the internet. But its opponents fear the bill will open the door for widespread censorship.
The directive would require sites like Facebook and YouTube to have paid licenses before they could link to people’s creative content (articles, videos, etcetera), which would heavily stymie what information gets to people.
And the laws would additionally apply an algorithmic filter on any content uploaded to the internet, which would also put parody and satire (read: our memes and gifs) on the line.
And the way we know and love Wikipedia now — one of the largest open-source forums — would be on the line as well.
Wikimedia, which owns around a dozen other open-source forums like Wikipedia, issued a statement last week against the directive, which highlighted main points of concern against the Copyright Directive.
Its board of trustees, which consists of heavyweight tech execs like Quora chief financial officer Kelly Battles and former Gizmodo Media Group chief executive Raju Narisetti, outlined three main grievances in its statement, which is part of a string of open pushes Wikimedia and its properties have made against the proposed legislation.
Wikimedia’s entire empire is built off open-sourcing — it calls itself “the world’s largest online repository of free knowledge” — and its board claimed that the proposed laws contradict the platform’s goal to make knowledge free and accessible to everyone.
The new restrictions, if passed, would possibly lead to a loss of revenue for the giant as well, since its funding mainly relies on user contributions. With a restricted reach after the proposed laws, the funding would probably also fall.
“If passed, it would limit free expression, and cause serious harm to collaboration and diversity online,” reads the statement. “Instead of truly modernizing copyright for Europe and promoting everyone’s participation in information society, the proposal threatens freedom online and creates new obstacles to access by imposing new barriers, filters, and restrictions.”
The company added, “[The laws], if enacted, will significantly limit the openness of the internet, diminishing the ability of people around the globe to access knowledge, while stifling innovation and imposing what we believe will be unreasonable costs on new or smaller websites.”
Stephen LaPorte, a legal counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, told Mashable that although it’s important to keep copyright infringed material offline, algorithms that vet information will not do people’s content justice.
“The problem the EU Parliament is faced with is how to create a space online that protects and protects people like us from copyright infringements,” LaPorte said. “The laws need to reflect the way people actually use or want to use the internet. It needs to show how users are creators and not just consumers of content.”
He said it was concerning that the laws envisioned using algorithms (similar to the one YouTube uses) to filter all uploaded content, which would possibly lead to censorship of criticisms and parodies.
An algorithm would not have the capacity to distinguish between stolen copyrighted material versus creative content using copyrighted material to progress the conversation. Think of it like a robot teacher that can identify when students reference other people’s work in an essay but cannot contextualize that the quote is used as a citation.
Only people, LaPorte said, have the capacity to vet information for actual copyright infringement without censorship of creative works.
Although the laws are designed for people sharing content within the E.U., the large population of internet users within the Schengen Zone would lead to worldwide content freedom changes.
Infringing on the freedom of expression
Think of the proposed law like YouTube’s anti-copyright infringement filter, which was implemented to make sure that no content on its platform steals from any other creator’s work.
It has previously taken down all types of copyright infringement free videos, such as Greenpeace’s Star Wars parody video and the French political party Front National had its entire channel taken down last month.
Now take that anti-copyright infringement filter and apply it to the entire internet.
While it sounds proactive, the mandate could have hefty privacy and freedom of expression repercussions.
“These battles are frankly not transparent and restrict people’s ability to communicate,” LaPorte said. “It contradicts with the vision for the internet.”
That means sharing and social platforms would be drastically changed: What would happen to Twitter if only people who had the rights to an image could retweet it? What happens to live tweeting the Grammys when we can’t post Blue Ivy shushing Jay Z and Beyoncé? To anyone who shares a Spongebob meme that isn’t Viacom?
Crippling collaboration probably hits home the hardest for Wikimedia and its various properties.
Almost anyone can edit the countless forum pages on its subsidiaries like Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and Wikinews. They basically cover broad-sweeping categories of culture, which are almost all based off creative work.
The best example is the highly obsessive fandoms — dubbed Wikias — that Wikimedia supports. Likeminded fans maintain detailed notes on shows and characters for anybody who might also enjoy obsessing over every detail of a show or simply wants some brushing up before a new season. Wikias also serve as introductions for viewers who aren’t sure whether they want to dedicate time to watch seven Game of Thrones seasons.
Using and accessing these forums could possibly become restricted if the copyright laws as written had passed, which would not only have stymied the freedom of sharing information, but it would have also omitted a large chunk of contributors.
Ruin diversity online
Increased restrictions of who may share content (due to licensing issues the new laws would have established) would limit how far information and knowledge could travel.
If everyone does not have an accessible way to contribute to Wikipedia — or any of Wikimedia’s properties for that matter — the diversity of voices contributing to the forums would drop considerably.
News would also have limited impact if who is allowed to share the creative content was restricted, and this restrained scope would heighten the internet echo chambers that are critiqued around the world.
“It’s such a good opportunity to strike a balance between copyright and more restrictions,” LaPorte said. “I feel like this is not that balance.”