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United States International Free & Open Internet

How European decision-makers could break the web

We’re all a part of the Web. It’s something that many of us probably take for granted. If we don’t act to safeguard this shared space, we’re sure to see more unnecessary restrictions around how we share knowledge and culture online.

You may or may not live in the European Union but many of your favourite websites (and the tech that runs them) do.

Decision-makers in Europe are considering proposals to make users and websites liable for every single link we post. The same goes for online service providers which host user-based content. Not only would this be a major step backward for free expression, it could even stifle or shutter some of our favourite Web services due to astronomical new legal fees.

As MEP Julia Reda notes: “It is impossible for both users and internet platforms to examine the legal status of every link. Content can change constantly online, so these examinations would actually have to take place constantly. What is more, every link leads to texts or pictures copyrighted by someone – no matter whether they know it or not; no matter whether they want to profit from this or not.”

The vision being advanced by some European decision-makers appears to be a new 'ask-permission-to-link-to-content' era for the Internet. This is antithetical to the open Web -- in fact it sounds an awful lot like broadcast television or the legacy paper publishing industry. Guess who is lobbying for it?

It’s in this context that Europe’s least favourite ‘Digital commissioner’ Günther Oettinger launched an online consultation that includes the role of online platforms.

The commissioner’s strategy boasts laudable goals, including: ending geoblocking, reducing regulatory burdens for startups, and ensuring that innovative new services and technologies have the conditions they need to prosper and grow. We’re into all that!

But we know full well that when new regulations are considered, there are some groups that are consulted more often, and that some entrenched industry voices speak louder than others. We know that old media’s lobbyists will be looking at this as an opportunity for them to implement a broad hyperlink tax and new link censorship powers that constrain and restrict users in order to prop up failing business models.

These legacy publishers also appear to have a friendly ear at commissioner Günther Oettinger’s office. We suspect that certain lobbyists and their political friends are hoping Internet users sit this influential consultation out. That’s not going to happen. 

It’s why we put together a special Internet Voice tool so you can have your voice heard.  We’re talking about the future of the hyperlink. We’re talk about the basic building blocks of the Web. 

What is a platform exactly?

According to the definition outlined by the Commission, a platform is any service or website you visit online. This includes social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, it includes media sharing sites like SoundCloud and YouTube, it even includes your own or your favourite blog, file-sharing sites, and even your own Instagram page.

It’s one of the reasons why this consultation is so important. If the rules drafted upon the outcome of this consultation govern “platforms” in the way they are defined by the Commission, that means they’ll cover every corner of the Web. Seriously scary. 

And they really want MY opinion?

They’re asking for your feedback. We hope it’s because they know that the rules that govern how we use the Web should be created with the input of digital citizens who actually use the Web every day. But there’s one huge caveat: this consultation was not really written for you and me.

For starters, it’s almost 50 pages long. You probably don’t have the time to answer dozens of questions, on a host of complex digital policy issues – many of which unrelated to saving the link.

It’s one of the reasons why we’ve created an easy tool to highlight the most important issues to get your feedback.

To make matters even more confusing, as an everyday Internet user answering the consultation, you’re not even allowed to respond to all of the questions. In fact, some of the most critical questions are addressed only at “rightsholders”, ignoring the fact that you and I are also stakeholders in a process the outcome of which could severely limit our freedom to link and hamper our free expression rights online.

Process

We worked with experts to assess the key issues in this extensive EU Commission consultation. We identified those which posed the greatest threat to the open Internet. We even spoke to the Commission to see if we could build something that went directly to them, but they said no. 

We thought that this was unfair and closed off to the public and decided to create a more accessible alternative.

Having re-framed the questions we then picked 5 which most spoke to the issues the #SaveTheLink campaign is about. We will collate all of the answers and present it as a whole to the Commission as the Save the Link campaign’s response.

We need real consultation, and we need it now. And we hope that the creation of our Internet Voice Tool makes it easy and quick for you to give feedback on the critical process of designing rules that will shape the future of the open Web.

What’s at risk here?

It’s really important that we understand the risks here. Copyright rules govern everything we do online, and if we’re not careful we could see:

  • Comments on our favourite blogs, posts, and links on social media networks and even entire websites disappear from the Web;

  • A ‘link tax’ just for pointing to content that’s freely available online;

  • The mass spread of broken links, 404 errors, and geoblocked pages;

  • Online platforms–remember, that’s every website you visit and every service you use online–liable for everything you post as a user.

This is what powerful copyright industries and outdated businesses want, and what it adds up to is a full-scale attack on our right to link to content and services of our choosing.

A bit of background

Earlier this year, OpenMedia and our SaveTheLink network partners asked Internet users to speak out to ensure that the hyperlink–a fundamental building block of the Web–remains a tool that we can all use to connect, explore, and share knowledge.

We asked Internet users to help us raise this issue at the European Parliament as it navigates a review of copyright rules that could impact Web infrastructure and websites that users around world rely on for work and play. Statistics from 2014 tell us that the EU represents almost 20% of global Internet traffic, and has over 500 million users online. Those millions of people will be directly affected by any new regulations coming out of the copyright review, but so will Internet users around the world.

Even if the Web abided by national borders, think about the 500 million users in the EU -- how they use the Internet daily to connect with friends and family; to find out what’s happening in the world around them; to debate issues central to the economy, democracy, and art. The theory of six degrees of separation tells us that it’s statistically likely our lives overlap in unexpected ways, and that we’re more connected than we think.

That means that even if you don’t live in the EU you’ve probably viewed a news article written by someone who does, visited a website hosted in the EU, spoken to a friend or read a blog that connects you to one of those 500 million (and counting!) users.

We’re all a part of the Web. It’s something that many of us probably take for granted. If we don’t act to safeguard this shared space, we’re sure to see more unnecessary restrictions around how we share knowledge and culture online.

That’s why we need you to speak out today and tell the European Union that we need them to protect our right to link online.