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EU’re in the Line of Fire

EU Digital Copyright Directive aims to reward content providers but overreaches on ordinary web users

By Laurence O’Bryan


Our world is experiencing a cathartic period of change, thanks to the internet and social media. The President of the United States uses Twitter to rally popular support among his base, including people who believe, as he does, that race and immigration issues are intertwined and that high walls are the best way to deal with neighbours.

A political world away in Nicaragua, the one-time darling of the left, Daniel Ortega, has seen real challenges emerging thanks to the widespread online dissemination of videos of his police thugs beating up protesters. He’s obviously still catching up with how to use the new tools.

In Venezuela, independent web sites and social media report the black-market exchange rates and murder counts. That’s anathema if you’re trying to prop up a dying regime.

In Tanzania the government has introduced a US$930 fee for bloggers to create content. And in Kenya resident Uhuru Kenyatta signed a cybercrimes bill, criminalising the publication of fake news.

The web, and its promotion and suppression, has enveloped our small world. Clearly many despise the transparency that independent web sites and social media bring. Attempts to stifle new media are being proposed even in Ireland.

A proposed EU Digital Copyright Directive was approved by the European Parliament on 12 September 2018, and will enter formal Trilogue discussions that are expected to conclude in January 2019. If formalised, each of the EU’s member countries would then be required to enact laws to support the directive.

One of the key objectionable aspects of the new copyright directive is the requirement that bloggers and social media commentators install software to preapprove content.

This suggestion is buried in a section of the proposed legislation. Article 13 of the ‘Proposal for a Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market’ is written in the language of bureaucrats. It is intended to enable “a fair balance between the rights and interests of authors and other rights holders on the one hand, and of users on the other”.

Article 11 of the same Directive provides for the so-called “link tax,” which gives publishers a right to ask for paid licences when online platforms share their stories. The obvious target is aggregators like Google News, but there are wider applications.

This is EU Big Brother overreaching.

The idea is that online platforms become liable for content uploaded by users that infringes copyright – to the advantage of content-makers. But it’s not that simple.

Even if you are e sympathetic to the notion of barring teenagers from uploading mashup videos without paying for the music track, and of YouTube paying up when those tracks are identified, you should recoil from the thought police installing a copyright check system before you upload anything to any web site.

If you decided, after Article 13, to post a “quote” from a famous writer or retweet a picture of a demonstration, you might need to apply for a licence and have your post and Tweet pre-approved first by the EU’s software as the quote and picture could be owned by someone else.

And the proposal to require all internet services to create filters to prevent copyrighted material being uploaded illegally, will be a levy racket which could put many smaller websites out of business.

I run a web site which lists books to help readers find new authors. Am I to pay to have a software tool assess what I may and may not put up on our web sites?

And given the many failings of existing copyright-identifying software, in my personal experience of our book trailers that have been incorrectly flagged, where we have paid for the music used, it seems likely that the tool will make mistakes.

Article 13 has been criticised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, and Jimmy Wales founder of Wikipedia. Both have warned that Article 13 could “damage the free and open internet”.

Even the United Nation’s human rights experts oppose Article 13 on the grounds of limiting the right to free speech.

And the next likely step is an attack on ‘fake news’ – a European Commission group of experts has already been established – and then that EU filter software, and the terms of your licence to use it, could be used to stop you saying anything online that could constitute fake news.

But one person’s fake news is another person’s truth.

I am sure some EU bureaucrats would object to ‘The Iliad’ if it was to be published on Amazon for the first time, under Article 13, for its use of epic poetry from previous sources and the one-sided nature of its reporting of the Trojan war – of who the heroes were and who ran away.

If there is a line to draw beyond which the EU must not pass Articles 11 and 13 point to it.


Laurence O’Bryan is an author and founder of BooksGoSocial and the Dublin Writers Conference.