A proposed law has divided the tech world as the realities of a new economy come to dominate how people create and view content online.
For over three years European Union officials have argued over how to upgrade its copyright law to take on the many challenges that the digital age poses to creators of online content, be it music, video, or a piece of art.
After intense debate and lobbying between numerous stakeholders, EU lawmakers on February 13 finally agreed to a draft law, which will now go through a few more rounds of negotiations before individual member-states implement it as a law.
Instead of alleviating concerns of the many sides that will be affected by its implementation, the EU Copyright Directive has divided interest groups.
The EU wants the likes of Google News, Facebook and Youtube to give a fair share of revenue to artists and newspapers whose content appears on their websites and smartphone applications.
But the opponents of the directive say it’s implementation will unwittingly lead to restrictions on the way people use the internet and have a fallout on small media companies.
Here’s what different sides have been saying.
Help the old or kill the new?
If made into law, the directive will force news aggregators such as Google News and Facebook to pay fees to news organisations, many of whom have complained for years of declining incomes.
Whenever people look for a news story on a search engine or come across it on their social network timeline, they see a link and its description.
The European Commission, citing a 2016 survey, says 47 percent of people who read, or find, news in this way don’t bother clicking the link, which takes them to the news organisations website.
This means while online platforms earn ads revenue, the news organisations don’t get paid for helping them drive the traffic.
But how this system of remuneration works is unclear. The directive says the aggregators won’t have to pay if they show a link of a story accompanied with “individual words” — leaving many to wonder how long the description should be to fall under the law’s purview.
A bigger problem lies for smaller and newer media companies such as Netudgaven.dk, an online site that creates podcast for the Danish market.
“For us the amount of money which comes in from Google is minuscule. What is actually important is to bring users to the website,” Thomas Noppen, Netudgaven’s founder, told TRT World.
Noppen heads an association of small Danish media publishers that oppose the directive in its current form. Most of its members are startups younger than five years, he says.
“When we start a company, we are one or two people, and we can’t even hire a lawyer. Now we have to go through all kinds of licensing agreements not just with Google but Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the next ten search engines.”
Spain tried to make big tech firms pay its news publishers through similar regulation a couple of years back but that backfired as media groups began to lose money, he says.
“Aggregators show headlines and provide traffic to big publishers; it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s a plus-sum game.”
Google says the law’s implementation can force it to be selective about the publications it strikes a deal with because of the sheer number of results that come up in search results.
But there are others who see the copyright law as correcting a distortion that shifts the balance in favour of big tech companies.
Making them pay
The EU already has laws governing intellectual property on the internet. But in most cases, it’s the copyright holder who flags a violation. Under the new law, the liability of stopping such violations will become the responsibility of websites and social platforms.
“Big platforms such as Youtube are making a lot of profit on protected content while they deny being liable for copyright (protection) and having to remunerate the authors”, says Veronique Desbrosses of GESAC, an organisation which represents over a million music composers, scriptwriters, authors and other online content creators.
“This is an economic problem. You need to reward content producers. Otherwise, you won’t have good content, and this is what is at stake,” she told TRT World.
The European Commission’s push is founded in a similar logic. It says internet platforms such as Facebook and Google make money from ads that appear on their sites alongside copyrighted material such as music or video clips.
In 2018, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) conducted a survey in more over a dozen countries and found that one-third of people listening to music online don’t use paid services because they can easily find whatever they want on Youtube.
Desbrosses says payouts can be decided on the basis of negotiations and traditional contracts like screenwriters have with TV channels.
But deciding on what’s a fair remuneration is contentious because there’s a vast gap between how different platforms compensate copyrighted content.
Spotify, a paid music streaming service, pays a $20 return to record companies for every user against $1 that comes from Youtube, according to IFPI.
An unlikely fallout
Making websites and social networks responsible for sifting for copyright infringement can have unintended consequences for ordinary internet users, says Johannes Kleis of the European Consumer Organisation, which has voiced concerns about the directive.
“Imagine I’m a user who wants to upload a simple home video that uses a popular song in the background. Youtube would need a license for that copyrighted music or otherwise prevent it from going on its website.”
This is not in the best interest of internet users, he says.
To avoid violating the law, online platforms will use filters to weed out copyright infringements, something that is going to be challenging since the content gets put on faster than it’s taken off.
“Some of the tools that might be deployed don't have the ability to distinguish between the content which can be uploaded or not. The technology is not smart enough, and it might block legal content just to be on the safe side,” says Kleis.
There are also concerns about how social networks and other online platforms will ensure that they have the requisite permission for the copyright material.
“It requires websites and apps where users can upload content to preemptively buy licenses for anything that users might upload,” says Christian Borggreen, the European representative of the Computers and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represents companies such as Google and Amazon.
“This is all the copyrighted content in the world and its impossible to preemptively get all these licenses. Especially if you are a smaller company, how on earth are you going to do this.”