New laws could cripple the internet

*This article first appeared in The i*

By Catherine Stihler, Labour MEP for Scotland, and Daniel Dalton, Conservative MEP for the West Midlands

If you use Twitter, you will probably have seen the meme.
It’s the picture with a distracted boyfriend looking at another woman while he’s out for a walk with his partner.
It’s been modified thousands of times to make humorous observations about everyday life.
But the original stock photo was taken by Antonio Guillem, and the inventive tweaks are usually shared on social media without the approval of the copyright holder.
If you haven’t seen that particular meme, perhaps you’ve seen the ones with Sean Bean’s character from the TV show Game of Thrones, or Sean Bean’s character from Lord of the Rings. Other actors are available.
It should go without saying that photographers, just like journalists and authors, deserve to be paid for their work.
If an internet news site such as Mail Online wants to use a snap of Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian or David Beckham, the owner of the photo must be properly credited and recompensed.
But do we really want to censor the internet so much that we ban memes?
That is the risk associated with a new Copyright Directive supported by the European Commission, which will be voted on by MEPs at committee stage this week.
We represent different political parties in the UK, and sit in different groups in the European Parliament. But we have the same concerns that this copyright crackdown could cripple the internet.
The censorship plans contained in Article 13 of the directive would force internet platforms such as YouTube and Facebook to introduce tough restrictions on users uploading material. Sites would be forced to install blunt technology to automatically recognise and block pieces of work which it believes belong to someone other than the person sharing it.
Far from helping to nurture creative talent, it means artists, musicians, and writers who upload content to share on the internet might find it is deleted without their consent so that others can’t share it.
And Brexit does not offer a get-out clause. Companies such as Google and Twitter will be required to conform to the legislation so that they can operate across the continent, and EU copyright rules will become the regional standard for all platforms which are available in the EU.
It perhaps sounds flippant to be focusing on memes as the impact of this directive goes much further, but it does help explain how it could affect everyday life.
Other popular activities such as listening to music remixes online or sharing videos of friends singing at karaoke could also be removed from the web, as the technology would filter out material it thinks infringes copyright rules. It doesn’t matter if your friends are ruining that Beyoncé song or mastering it, the technology would decide it’s not your song to share.
If the directive is passed, companies will take this seriously – they won’t risk being held liable for copyright infringement and facing huge fines.
And while some people may scoff and say they can live without memes or karaoke clips, what about online news?
The way that we consume news has changed dramatically. The proposed overhaul of EU copyright law would in theory give press publishers more control over the digital use of their content. However, the reality is that fewer people would even know that content exists. Currently anyone can share a link to an article such as this one on social media. That link drives other users to the publishers’ website, allowing them to monetise the visit and the content. This proposed directive aims to stop that, denying people the chance to share content and denying publishers visibility for their content.
When a similar idea was introduced in Spain, the Google News service which links to newspapers’ digital content was withdrawn from the marketplace. Traffic to websites of small and medium sized publishers fell by up to 30 per cent as a result.
That has a direct impact on local journalists, putting their livelihoods in peril.
This debate is sometimes wrongly framed as a choice between media firms or Google. There are powerful people lobbying in favour of the publishers’ right, particularly in Germany, but we are on the side of ordinary journalists and consumers.
We fear that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook would be forced to block links to the quality press, allowing ‘fake news’ to become more dominant.
We are proud supporters of a sustainable Press and don’t want that put at risk. Journalism matters, and quality journalism matters even more.
Think of the many bloggers masquerading as news outlets who popped up during the Scottish independence and EU referendums.
They are entitled to have their say, but they wouldn’t be affected by this copyright reform. Qualified, trained reporters on the other hand would – and they would find it much harder to compete.
There are additional concerns about the impact on universities and the world of academia, as researchers often link to media content in their studies. Scholars who specialise in internet law, human rights law and journalism at universities all over Europe are opposed to this; as MEPs we should listen to them.
This copyright debate has been rumbling on for many months, but the saga is finally coming to an end.
If we get this wrong, this overzealous legislation could transform the digital landscape for generations to come. Copyright reform must not be allowed to break the internet.