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Big Tech EU parliament approves contentious online copyright reform

parliament in strasbourg

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voting on the reform Wednesday.

(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The decision in Strasbourg to clamp down on big Internet platforms was heavily lobbied both by publishers and free speech advocates. Switzerland is not yet directly implicated.

The first post-summer sitting of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday was marked largely by the unprecedented decision of MEPs to sanction Hungary for its recent democratic backsliding.

Less headline-grabbing, but perhaps almost as consequential, was the large approval of an ambitious reform of EU copyright rulesexternal link, a reform that could have big implications for online media across the continent, including in Switzerland.

The changes – the first time Brussels is updating copyright laws since 2001 – aim to adapt to the digital age by tipping the scales back from big online platforms like Google and Facebook to the ‘content creators’ that feed them: musicians, photographers, journalists, etc.

To do this, the directive relies on two main weapons: obliging aggregators to recompense original authors whenever a snippet of their work appears in a feed (Google News, for example); and demanding that sites such as YouTube pre-screen uploads of music or videos to prevent copyright infringement.

Fears of censorship

It’s a big idea that’s been lobbied heavily in Brussels by publishing organisations and creative types, on one hand, and big tech firms and Internet freedom activists on the other. High-profile figures including Paul McCartney (for) and Wyclef Jean (against) have also waded in.

Swiss author and digital activist Andreas Von Gunten is firmly in the second camp. “It’s a bad day for the Internet,” he tells, explaining that the decision will ultimately only benefit the very groups it was designed to undercut – the Internet giants.

He says previous experiments (in Germany, for example) to force content aggregators to pay news organisations for their material simply haven’t worked, mainly because Google has enough clout to force publicity-hungry publishers to sign contracts allowing free diffusion.

Meanwhile, further down the chain, he says, smaller news outlets as well as smaller companies trying to innovate in the curation/aggregation market lose out because it’s unfeasible that they sign and pay the plethora of contracts that such a law implies.

“We will have less innovation. The emancipatory potential of the Internet for smaller voices will disappear.”

As for placing the onus for removing copyrighted content onto providers such as YouTube, Von Gunten and other sceptics are unconvinced. Algorithmic ‘upload filters’ could swing too far towards upload ‘blockers,’ they say, censoring perfectly harmless content from making it online.

The vote, backed by French President Emmanuel Macron among others, was welcomed by the European Commission as well as the European Newspaper Publishers Association (ENPA)external link, which counts as one of its members the Swiss Mediaexternal link group, representing over 300 newspapers and magazines in the country.

“This reform is not just about the modernisation of copyright but about the fundamental function of our democracies,” said an ENPA spokesman. “Today the European parliamentarians proved they value the European independent press by voting for a publishers’ right that will help ensure the sustainability of the European press sector.”

Swiss watching

In Switzerland, which is not an EU member state, a separate revision of federal copyright rulesexternal link is also ongoing right now, though the focus is more on protection of photography rights than the controversial issues of ‘link taxes’ and ‘upload filters’ on the table in Brussels.

The Internet knowing no borders, however, it’s possible that lawmakers in Bern will consider similar measures to the EU at some stage in the future, intellectual property lawyer Anne-Virginie La Spada told the Le Temps newspaperexternal link – “if the EU experiment is conclusive”.

For now, the details of implementation remain open: they will be discussed by EU Commission, Parliament, and Council over the next months before the final version is put to MEPs for a last vote.

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