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The European Union wants to force me to pay “news sites” for links with “snippets” of content I might quote on this blog, and it wants the WordPress platform to flag and censor anything that might qualify as copyright infringement. The EU also wants search engines like Google and platforms like Facebook to pay for links and “snippets” or else censor them. Most members in the EU Parliament apparently think the best way to regulate information services is to choke off the flow of information. As Warren Meyer says, if you weren’t for Brexit, this single EU action might well convert you (though British statists have their own designs on censorship, Brexit or not). And if you think government involvement won’t ruin the internet, think again.

These restrictive demands are the essence of two controversial provisions of the so-called European Copyright Directive (ECD) passed by the EU Parliament on March 26th. My summary here leaves out lots of detail, but be assured that administering the Directive will require a massive regulatory apparatus:

The Link Tax: If you link to a source and quote a “snippet” of text from that source, you will have to obtain a license from the source, or else the link you use may be blocked. Keep in mind the rule applies despite full attribution to the original source! It remains to be seen how these licenses will be negotiated, but it will almost certainly impose costs on users.

Censorship Machines: Platforms will be required to monitor and assess everything posted for possible copyright infringement. That will require the development of automated “filters” to flag and remove material that might be in violation. That’s a stark change in the treatment of speech on platforms that, heretofore, have not been required to police their users. The responsibility was on those holding copyrights to go after unauthorized use with takedown notices.

Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote an informative position paper on the ECD a week before the vote. He has been an active and articulate opponent of the legislation. Here are some of his comments (his emphasis):

… text that contains more than a ‘snippet’ from an article are covered by a new form of copyright, and must be licensed and paid by whoever quotes the text …[the ECD] has a very vague definition of ‘news site’ and leaves the definition of ‘snippet’ up to each EU country’s legislature. … no exceptions to protect small and noncommercial services, including Wikipedia but also your personal blog. The draft doesn’t just give news companies the right to charge for links to their articles—it also gives them the right to ban linking to those articles altogether, (where such a link includes a quote from the article) so sites can threaten critics writing about their articles.”

The ECD seems intended as a gift to large news organizations, but it will discourage the free exposure now given to those news sites on the internet. It’s therefore not clear that the ECD will generate much incremental cash flow for news sites or other content providers. However, collecting the new license revenue will come at some expense, so it won’t be of much help to smaller “rights holders”. Therefore, the rule is likely to benefit large platforms and news outlets disproportionately, as they are in a better position to negotiate licenses for the use of material.

As for censorship machines, perhaps rights holders prefer a shift in the burden of policing the use of copyrighted material away from themselves and to the platforms. Some might suggest that it will achieve efficiencies, but that seems unlikely. These filters are costly and are likely to suffer from an excess of false positives. Moreover, the ECD creates risks that demand conservatism on the part of the platforms, so their censorship machines will systematically side against users. There is also a reasonable possibility that filters will be used to control political speech.

All of this is contrary to the doctrine of fair use, as codified and practiced in the U.S. This involves four conditions giving fairly broad latitude to users, described at the last link by Stan Adams:

The relevant statutory provision (17 U.S.C. § 107) describes four factors to consider when determining whether a particular use of a work is “fair”: the purpose and character of the use; the nature of the copyrighted work; the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the work as a whole; and the effect of the use on the potential market for, or value of, the original work.”

Copyright protection has never been absolute nor intended to guarantee perfect exclusivity. Ever lend a book to a friend? Ever heard a cover band perform pop hits? Ever offered a quote to forward a written argument? All of this falls broadly under fair use, and much of it serves to promote the economic interests of rights holders, as opposed to infringing on the market for their original work. The EU, however, has no provisions for fair use in its copyright laws (though EU countries may have limitations and exclusions to copyright protection).

It’s bad enough that Europeans will suffer the consequences of this ill-considered piece of legislation, but can the platforms be counted upon to apply their censorship machines only to select geographies? Adams encapsulates the difficulties the ECD presents to users elsewhere:

… the rest of the world must rely on private companies to ensure that the EU’s misguided copyright policies do not restrict freedoms enjoyed elsewhere in the world.”

Internet regulations in Europe and the U.S. seem to be following different cronyist disease vectors. The ECD favors large news organizations at the expense of social media platforms, and ultimately consumers and the cause of free speech. The large tech platforms are of course equipped to survive, but perhaps not small ones. In the U.S., we have Mark Zuckerberg begging for regulation of Facebook, including the regulation of speech. That’s a spectacularly bad idea for public policy. It too would disadvantage smaller competitors in the social media space. Ultimately, in Europe and the U.S, these steps will come at the expense of consumers, possibly in higher monetary costs, but definitely in restrained trade in online services and in the marketplace of ideas. So goes the cause of free speech when government has the power to regulate the flow of information.

For further reading on the ECF, see Catarina Midoes: “Is this blog post legal (under new EU copyright law)?” She discusses how different factions view the ECD, gives additional perspective on the controversial provisions, and discusses some potential unintended consequences. Also see Scott Shackford’s “Hide Those Meme’s Folks…