April 2, 2019


The EU May Have Just Split the Internet

By: Josh Evans

One of the internet’s greatest strengths is the way it unleashes the creativity of its users. Online conversations are peppered with screenshots and gifs of movies, TV shows, and even stock photos repurposed to make new jokes or argue new points. However, new European Union regulations could mean the end of memes and more on the internet.

Last week, the European Parliament passed a new Directive on Copyright despite heavy opposition from free speech activists, the tech industry, and a record-breaking grassroots movement.

The most controversial aspect of the new regulations comes from what was known as Article 13 throughout most of the process (though it was moved to Article 17 in the final version). Article 13 would drastically alter the way people are able to create and upload content on the internet.

Under current law, online platforms are safe from legal action whenever users illegally upload copyrighted material, as long as the platform properly responds to takedown requests from the actual rightsholder. However, Article 13 shifts the burden to platforms to proactively catch copyrighted content before it’s posted.

The original draft of the regulations explicitly required platforms to set up content filters to screen everything that gets posted. This language was removed in favor of a vague demand that platforms act in good faith to screen out copyrighted material, but content filters still appear to be the only effective way to achieve that.

This has led to fears over the law’s impact on free speech. Speech on the internet revolves heavily on memes, reaction gifs, and other ways of repurposing someone else’s content in new ways. While Article 13 supporters insist that memes are protected under an exception for parody, they ignore the fact that even the best upload filters have serious problems with unfairly flagging legitimate content.

Even worse, most platforms will not be able to afford quality filters. While the EU has said that filtering services are available starting at 900 euros per month, their reliability is questionable. To get a more accurate view of the costs, look to Google: The internet giant has spent more than $100 million developing its ContentID system for YouTube. Despite the massive expense, false positives continue to plague the system.

Ultimately, the cost of the filter would crush smaller competitors, leaving fewer options for everyone, not just Europeans. The limited attempts to provide carve-outs are far too minimal to actually preserve competition. To be exempt, a company must be newer than three years old, have fewer than 5 million unique annual visitors, and have less than 10 million euros in annual revenues. The moment a company passes any of those thresholds, they’ll be faced with a multi-million dollar upload filter price tag.

But what do European regulations have to do with American internet users? There are a few possibilities. The worst case scenario may be that internet companies could choose to enact these changes worldwide. It wouldn’t be the first time; last year, Americans saw their inboxes flooded with notifications of updated privacy policies in response to the EU’s adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation.

However, it’s also possible that Article 13 could essentially split the internet in two; Europeans would find themselves restricted to a censored version of the internet, scrubbed of any potentially infringing material. While Americans may not see an immediate change in our ability to upload and share content, Article 13 would create a new barrier in how we are able to interact with others in Europe.

It may be a while before we see which path internet companies take, though. The Copyright Directive must still be approved by the European Council, which most experts believe is quite likely to happen. From there, the regulations must be transposed into the national laws of each individual member state — a potentially messy and lengthy process.

The best hope is that a court case may overturn the most extreme parts of the copyright directive. Otherwise, Americans may have to live with an internet that is either censored by, or cut off from, our European friends.