The Globe: EU's Article 13 — A Farewell to Memes

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2019 has not been kind to Big Tech or fans of the Internet. Following years of contentious debating, the European Union has finally passed Article 13 (now also known as Article 17 after changes to the directive) -- among numerous other provisions -- that will have a significant impact on content creators based in the European continent. The EU argues that it is a necessary step in bringing copyright laws to the Internet in order to combat piracy. But this deal has received much hate from online activists who depend on content sharing sites for their income. Indeed, Article 13 is being heralded by many as “the end of the internet as we know it.” Both sides have reasonable opinions for why they are either for or against the articles in particular, and with the world still grappling with the sudden rise of the digital age, there is no easy answer.

So what exactly is this much-contested Article 13? The newest article is part of the EU’s Copyright Directive which, as its name entails, deals with copyrighted material, an issue that has been a gray area of sorts for the Internet. Ultimately, the directive is meant to finally bring the Internet in the Union under its copyright laws. This would require companies like Google, YouTube (which is part of Google), Facebook, and other tech giants to get permission to use content that belongs to others and to compensate their creators. Overall, the new directives would shift the burden of managing copyrighted material from content creators to the services hosting the content. These services will have to police the content people are posting by either paying the original creators of the material or take down the content altogether.

There are some exceptions to Article 13. Wikipedia and other non-profit encyclopedias are not affected, along with software development platforms, and cloud storage services. While the new rule passed the EU’s Parliament, member states still have to adopt the rules in their own government, for which many are planning on doing. The passage of this Article is not surprising as the EU has made tech giants a primary target of its regulations. The data breaches plaguing Facebook and other online services is a major concern, and the Union wants to break their stranglehold on the Internet.

Joining Article 13 is Article 15 (formerly Article 11) which will mandate publishing licenses for search engines and social media in order to link content that belongs to another company. Essentially, sites like Facebook and Google will now have to pay content creators whenever their content is linked on these websites. In this case, the only exception is given to hyperlinks to articles which include individual words or very short extracts

If you glanced over to the opposition however, you would think you were witnessing the end of the world; or at least in this scenario, the end of the internet. As stated above, those against Article 13 argue that the law would punish content creators who make a living off of online streaming and video services. These services make billions of dollars off of content created by others without paying for their usage.

Twitch, which is a streaming platform that people can play video games, or make art, do a podcast, or just talk to their viewers, is estimated to be worth at least four billion dollars. There are also over 27,000 streamers (out of the estimated 2 million plus streamers on Twitch) on the site who are partnered with Twitch and are paid via donations and/or subs from viewers, and ad revenue that Twitch shares with them. Article 13 will put more pressure on Twitch and Youtube to “impose strict filters and limitations on European users.” Even those content creators who do not live in Europe risk getting their content banned if they cannot prove they are not violating copyright laws.

Despite the concern that the new regulations will force sites like Twitch and Youtube to create automated upload filters that can detect and block copyrighted material, some politicians are saying that this is simply not the case and that the Article “only requires that [platforms] either license or remove copyrighted material.” Indeed, this provision was actually in an earlier version of the bill that failed to pass last year, so that is not actually an issue -- at least for now.

Ultimately, the new articles may just benefit other companies instead of individual content creators, contradicting claims made by proponents of the new regulations. Entertainment giants like Disney stand to reap the benefits of the new law as their content is widely shared on social media sites and youtube. For a group that seems to detest tech companies that have the lion’s share of that market, the EU seems to love traditional media giants.

So what is the fate of memes? There has been concern that the additions to the Copyright Directive could end memes and gifs because they often use copyrighted imagery, thus stifling freedom of expression. However, it appears that they are safe since any content that is used for “quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody, and pastiche” are deemed safe. The official press release states that these types of content are excluded from the directive. But even then, there is doubt that this is truly the case, as an automated filter system could still delete such content. If this actually happened, the blowback from content creators on Youtube, Twitch, and other online media sharing services would be severe, as many channels on these sites do these exact things. So to all who require daily (or hourly) consumption of cat videos to get you through the day, and worry that Article 11 and 13 will snuff out any remaining joy from the Internet, you are safe -- for now.  

While the objectives of the European Union are understandable, the new additions to the directive leave the issue of enforcement up in the air. Without the mandated filters that would automatically pick up and delete copyrighted content, Article 13 is essentially toothless. Youtube’s algorithm for copyright material is already questionable at best after demonetizing content for anything that may look like copyright infringement. Furthermore, the language used in the new directives leaves much to be desired, as it does not really allay any fears. While tech giants may be able to bear the burden of the new copyright laws, individual content creators may be impacted more negatively overall. With all this said and done, the law has many strong points as authors do deserve to receive compensation for the consumption of their content; however, the lack on specifics as to how sites are supposed to manage potentially copyrighted content leaves much to be desired. Much like the decision to strike Net Neutrality here in the United States, the new directives is not an end of the Internet nor is it silencing freedom of expression.