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Another Angle: EU's odd copyright directive risks breaking the internet


The late US singer Prince, whose song ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was the  subject of a court case alleging violation of copyright. Photo: Getty Images

The late US singer Prince, whose song ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was the subject of a court case alleging violation of copyright. Photo: Getty Images

The late US singer Prince, whose song ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was the subject of a court case alleging violation of copyright. Photo: Getty Images

Here's a thought: why can't the EU just leave alone the one thing - the internet - that's working well?

Having made a mess of laws around cookies and consumer privacy, the EU is now turning its attention to copyright.

For years, there has been tension between copyright holders and, well, everyone who uses the internet.

To give one example in the US, Universal Music Publishing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently settled a case over a YouTube video of a toddler dancing to Prince's 'Let's Go Crazy'.

Universal claimed the 29-second video violated their copyright, but ultimately lost when a court ruled the video was fair use.

On June 20, the European Parliament passed the EU Copyright Directive.

Any website that allows users to upload text, audio, or video would have to implement a filter that checks for copyrighted material. This is nominally a worthy goal, but one that hurts much of the legitimate internet.

The Copyright Directive looks to hold websites accountable for any copyrighted material posted online.

But, as the dancing baby video shows, copyright enforcement is an inexact science.

YouTube shouldn't be forced to remove video of a speech or protest just because someone had a boombox in the background.

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Here's the thing: if websites have to pre-emptively screen user-generated content for copyright, most of the websites we love - Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Twitch, Wikipedia, and so on - simply won't work.

User-generated content is the life-blood of the internet, and the Copyright Directive puts unreasonable constraints on many legitimate forms of expression.

Another section of the law taxes linking to material published online unless you have a licence with the publisher. If you've ever shared a link on Facebook, you know that this dialogue is what makes the internet valuable.

It's hard to argue that combating fake news should mean that we share - and see - less information. I'm usually sceptical of the-sky-is-falling-in predictions, but the EU's copyright reform law could fundamentally change how we communicate and share information online.

Users - and the most popular websites - will be harmed by over-broad laws that seek to solve one problem and cause another.

If we're trying to make Europe an attractive place to start a tech company, this is the opposite of what we should be doing.

Laws like this might be why the EU is falling behind in the global tech race - of the top 50 entries on the Wikipedia list of companies worth more than $1bn, 26 are from China, 16 from the US, and none are from Europe.

Unfortunately, the EU has been on a roll when it comes to passing legislation that is actively bad for the internet. Thanks to a previous directive, websites accessible in the EU - that is, virtually all of the internet - must display information about how they gather information about you using cookies.

If you're wondering why the bottom half of every website these days asks you to agree to abstruse privacy terms, that's why.

More recently, the European Parliament passed the GDPR, a sweeping privacy law that has filled our inboxes with even more impenetrable privacy policies. Ostensibly, GDPR rules ensure that companies handle personal information responsibly.

A noble goal, but one that's been botched in the implementation.

For one thing, GDPR strengthens the positions of the incumbents at the expense of everyone else. Facebook and Google have a phalanx of lawyers to throw at legislative problems, while smaller companies will be scrambling for years to come, saddled with the burden of ongoing bureaucracy and ensuring compliance.

When GDPR first came into effect on May 25, many news sites - including the 'Chicago Tribune', 'LA Times', and the 'New York Daily News' - opted to simply make their websites unavailable to readers from Europe.

The internet as a technology was premised on breaking down borders and providing universal access. Such geographic stratification is maddening.

Cookies, consumer privacy, and copyright: If you'll permit me an Americanism - I've lived here for five years - the EU is batting 0 for 3 when it comes to passing meaningful legislation that doesn't leave the internet worse off than when they found it.

The internet is a ray of light in a stagnant economy. Unless we want one internet for Europeans and another for everyone else, the EU Commission and the Council should focus their energies elsewhere.

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