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Europe’s Censorship Robots: An attack on our basic rights

Copyright proposals coming out of the European Commission are attacking our fundamental rights – now that’s outrageous.

Our fundamental rights are under attack from the EU’s Copyright Directive.

There are two big proposals in the the new EU copyright legislation which are an attack on our rights:

1. The link tax that will require charging fees for using snippets of text with links (Article 11)

2. Content filtering proposals for mandatory censorship (Article 13)

The European Commission – and the big media organisations who are pushing these plans – have made it clear in their ‘public’ events in the European Union that this law is all about them.

Both of these ideas are billed as being a way to re-balance the Internet towards privind revenue to giant rightsholder groups, which they feel they are being cheated out of in the age of digital communications.

But these proposals will have serious, far-reaching consequences for our human rights online: for free expression, access to information and privacy. And to the big publishers, that freedom is the enemy.

We’ve written a lot about the link tax, before – an idea which proposes charging fees to sites that share snippets of text with hyperlinks, and which will result in serious loss of freedom of information, and freedom of expression.

Today, lets delve into what these mandatory censorship proposals are all about:

The draft law presented by the European Commission creates an entirely new regime for online platforms and services, which, under the new law would be required to monitor the online behaviour of their users, turning our favourite websites into the speech police.

Firstly, under these proposed regulations websites will be liable for all the content – that’s your posts, everything you do online – that is shared on their sites.

Once they are liable, they inevitably become much more invested in shutting down anything that could get them into legal trouble. We know from existing online censorship schemes that this leads to over-reach, removal of political content, and shutting down anything that these companies are concerned could get them into legal trouble. Which, under the new regime, would be greatly expanded.

To further remove common sense from the equation, the law demands that companies create systems which will detect potentially infringing content and take it down automatically – a kind of “censorbot” for User Generated Content (UGC) platforms across the EU. UGC platforms include sites like Tumblr, Instagram, DeviantArt, YouTube - anywhere where YOU are creating and sharing the media.

However, existing laws and previous court judgements from the top EU court actuallyforbid monitoring of user generated content precisely because it goes against freedom of expression, as well as our right to privacy.

Yet this new law proposes undoing the established rules: now websites will have an obligation to monitor. Such monitoring for copyright becomes akin to mass surveillance, where big tech is used against us, for the sake of handing over power and control to the moneyed few.

These rules don’t say that they are for preventing illegal uploads– it’s about preventing uploads identified by rightsholders and the publishing industry. This puts huge amounts of power in the hands of a few companies, who get to decide what restrictions are appropriate. Suddenly they’ve become the real Internet police.

Envisioned by Big Media and supported by irresponsible government policies, they will create a global Internet censorship scheme that would allow for widespread link censorship online, at the request of powerful interests, with no judicial oversight.

The law wants every website that involves uploads of content to build something like YouTube's ContentID program – which flags copyrighted content on videos. Yet it cost Google $60 million to develop this hugely complex system, which often results in false positives and unwarranted censorship. For small innovative companies and nonprofits who are affected by this law, there is no requirement for how much money a platform must be making to qualify for these monitoring and censorship programs, which begs the question: how can everyone afford to make expensive programs to detect alleged copyright infringement?

What’s worse, these bots won’t be able to understand parody, public interest exceptions, or fair use. It is incredibly unlikely that in enforcing these proposals companies will be able to build something capable of taking account of the different copyright rules in different countries. Our friends at Communia did extensive research on what is permitted in different nations in the EU in this interactive map. And they discovered that there are thousands of combinations of copyright rules in the EU. For example, you can make parody in Spain, but not Portugal; you can take photos of sculptures in public places in Germany, but not France; you can make quotes for criticism in everywhere except Slovenia.

This variety will all need to be squared off – and no amount of automated robots will be able to make this happen.

If Europe moves forward with this law, we will be moving towards the lowest common denominator – in the direction of the least amount of freedom to share, create and innovate.

And we’re not the only ones who think so. A group of 40 top European academics, led by Sophie Stalla-Bourdillon from the University of Southampton, sent a letter to the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council last week asking all of these key decision makers to weigh up these important human rights implications. They raised the same flags we are: how for the sake of the so-called value gap, the EU is asking for censorship and surveillance technology to be implemented across the EU.

These link censorship schemes also run completely counter to what the Internet community has clearly articulated in this crowdsourced plan for free expression online, as well as the Manila Principles, Copyright for Creativity’s Copyright Manifesto, and Article 19’s Principles on Freedom of Expression.

Soon, we’ll be asking you to email your MEP to make sure media publishers are not given near limitless powers to block your online expression. We hope you’ll join us in taking action.

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