July 20, 2018

Wikipedia vs. EU copyright reform: what’s next

It is all quiet on the European Union copyright front – for now. Although the opposing forces battling over pending new EU laws designed to adapt copyright to the digital era are laying low for the summer recess, nobody is about to wave the white flag. Far from it. Moreover, both sides are preparing for another showdown that will begin Sept. 12 when the European Parliament General Assembly is due to vote on legislation.

Some say the pending EU copyright reform proposal will save newspapers and other publishers as well as the music industry from the financial oblivion. Others say the proposal is nothing more than censorship that will kill the internet.

And just as the salvation and doomsday warnings from either sides are strikingly extreme, so are the unusual alliance of lobbyists making them. Whereas groups such as newspapers, free speech proponents, digital rights advocacy groups, artists and academics would normally be working together to challenge the dominance of large tech companies – as they often have, for example, on issues such as Net Neutrality – they are now in the trenches battling each other.

Proposed in 2016 as part of the EU digital single market legislative package, copyright component contains three measures that has been the focus of the bitter dispute. These include a plan to establish EU-wide copyright protection to news excerpts that online platforms such as Google, Bing, Yahoo and others use for their news aggregation services. The European Commission, with the support of the newspaper and publishing industry, insist the copyright protection is long overdue.

But for others, including online platform news aggregators, this copyright protection is nothing more than a disguised “link tax.” Wikipedia, which went blank in some EU countries in protest of the proposal, as well as many academics, including World Wide Web Founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee, insist new EU-wide copyright protection for news excerpts threatens the hyperlink, media freedom and will give a boost to fake news.

According to Wikipedia, “Instead of updating the copyright laws in Europe to promote everyone’s participation in the information society, it threatens online freedom and creates barriers to accessing the Net by imposing new barriers, filters and restrictions. If the proposal is approved, it may be impossible to share a newspaper article on social networks or find it on a search engine. Wikipedia itself would risk to close”.

A second highly contentious component of the legislation would require streaming services such as You Tube and others to installing filtering software that ensures any material uploaded onto the internet is not infringing copyrights. The most high profile supporter of this legislation in none other than Sir Paul McCartney. Standing with him are the leading music industry titans including all of leading record labels.

Opponents of the filtering requirement such as the advocacy group European Digital Rights, which say it amounts to censorship as well as a wide range of civil society groups and human rights defenders.

The third portion of the controversial EU copyright protection would put limits on text and data mining to research institutions. Opponents say it will restrict new technology such as machine learning applications and natural language processing. 

All three of these components will be subject to another lobbying blitz once the EU lawmakers begin returning to Brussels during the last week of August. Whatever is the outcome of the European Parliament vote on Sept. 12 will have to be negotiated with EU member states in the Council of Ministers. EU lawmakers are hoping to have a deal by Christmas. Others say a deal is not likely before next May when the European Parliament will hold elections for its next five-year term. Stay tuned.