The EU’s ‘anti-meme’ law explained as MEPs reject it

Members of the European Parliament attend a plenary session in Strasbourg
Members of the European Parliament attend a plenary session in Strasbourg Copyright REUTERS
By Sallyann Nicholls
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EU lawmakers have rejected the fast-tracking of a piece of legislation that critics say would significantly damage internet freedom.


EU lawmakers have rejected the fast-tracking of a piece of legislation that critics say would significantly damage internet freedom.

The European Parliament voted on the European Union’s new copyright directive earlier on Thursday. The regulation is an update to a 2001 directive on copyright, and is aimed at modernising those rules for the digital age.

A total of 318 lawmakers rejected the talks, while 278 voted in favour and 21 abstained. A further vote on the law will be delayed until September 10.

The directive had been cleared by a European parliamentary committee, but legislators rejected a closed-door debate with EU member states, which would have pushed the process of passing it into law.

First proposed in 2016, the paper seeks to update copyright rules to tackle piracy and introduce “fair pay” for artists and journalists when their work is used online and in the “physical” world – a goal which many argue would threaten freedom of expression and the public’s access to information.

Two sections in the directive have sparked particular concern:

Article 11

Dubbed the ‘link tax’, this snippet would force news aggregators like Google and Facebook to buy a licence to publish links to news organisations and extracts from their stories.

Article 13

Under this section, online platforms would be liable if its users upload or publish unlicensed content, such as photos, videos, source code or music, on their website. Such actions would require a licence fee to be paid, or for the content to be pre-filtered or automatically censored.

Major publishers and lawmakers say these reforms are necessary to ensure the survival of traditional news media which have seen their advertising revenue slump as consumers digest news on aggregators and seek free alternatives.

After the draft law was approved by Strasbourg’s Legal Affairs Committee on June 20, German MEP Axel Voss said: “News publishers and artists, especially the smaller ones, are not getting paid due to the practices of powerful online content-sharing platforms and news aggregators.

“This is wrong and we aim to redress it. The principle of fair pay for work done should apply to everyone, everywhere, whether in the physical or online world.”

But while MEPs hope the law could lead to fair compensation for writers and artists, opponents of the directive say it could cause ‘substantial damage’ to the free and open internet as it exists now.

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy WalesREUTERS

In an open letter addressed to the President of the European Parliament last month, over 70 notable names in the field of technology, including Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, wrote: “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.

“By … making platforms directly responsible for ensuring the legality of content in the first instance, the business models and investments of platforms large and small will be impacted. The damage that this may do to the free and open Internet as we know it is hard to predict, but in our opinions could be substantial.”

Critics also say the law could subvert freedom of expression by suppressing the spread of memes (typically humorous images or videos with text that are shared between online users) and the production of music remixes and mash-ups.

The exposure of politically sensitive content may also be at threat, whereby the concerned party could issue a copyright claim over the material to a content-monitoring platform during an election, forcing its withdrawal as a legal battle ensues.

So today's vote was crucial. The debate will be reopened, and lawmakers will have one more chance to amend the proposals at the next plenary meeting in September.

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