Google is taking flack for opposing a major overhaul of European copyright law. The company’s critics accuse it of trying to get publishers to lobby on its behalf, so it can continue to make money off of other people’s work.
But what’s going on is more nuanced than that. While Google is of course acting out of self-interest, the law it’s fighting against really does pose a serious threat to the way the Internet works. It would lead to greater online surveillance and censorship, while even making it difficult for people to share memes.
Here’s what you need to know.
What’s the background to this?
The development of the Internet seriously hurt old-school newspaper publishers, by exposing them to lots of competition from new-school news startups. The Internet has also caused endless copyright headaches for the content industry—music, film, TV and so on—because users can easily copy and share their content.
Regarding the first of those issues, news publishers in Europe have in recent years been trying to fight back against the core mechanism people use to find information online: search.
They successfully lobbied governments in Germany and Spain to introduce new “ancillary copyright” laws forcing Google to pay licence fees for reproducing snippets of article text when linking to those articles in Google News. In both cases, the laws failed in practice—the German publishers got nothing from Google, which stopped reproducing snippets of their articles when linking to them, and the company entirely shut down its News service in Spain.
So, faced with this repeated evidence of bad policy, what did the European Commission do? It decided to introduce the same concept across the entire European Union. That proposal is now entering its final legislative stages, which is where the current argument comes in.
Opponents of this element of the new law call it a “link tax,” which is slightly pushing the boundaries of accuracy—it doesn’t tax links as such, but it does mean that, if you want to link to something by quoting what it is you’re linking to, you’d need to get a licence to do so.
O…K? Any more weird stuff in this new law?
Sure! The new EU copyright directive would also force any platform that accepts user-generated content to filter out stuff that might violate someone’s copyright. That would affect everything from YouTube (which already has very expensive filters in place for this purpose) to code-sharing platforms like GitHub.
Critics say this would be a huge burden for new companies trying to set up online platforms. And luminaries of the Internet, from web inventor Tim Berners-Lee to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, warn the move “takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet, from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users.”
There’s also the small matter of this legislative proposal conflicting with another EU law called the e-commerce directive, which specifically exempts online platforms from having to proactively monitor what gets uploaded.
In effect, this part of the new law may even stop people from sharing memes that use copyright content—as so many do, from GIFs based on TV show clips to memes based on stills from Star Trek or Lord of the Rings. The European Commission claims there’s no problem, as if anyone finds their memes are being scrubbed from online platforms, they can go through an appeals process to have them reinstated. (Even this is not true in all EU countries, as some don’t have a copyright exception for parodies.)
So what did Google do?
Google (GOOGL) has a big-money program in the EU called the Digital News Initiative, through which it helps publishers create and test out new business models to help them cope with technological change. It’s always been a lobbying move to some extent—some say Google is buying the publishers off to stop them criticizing it—but now Google stands accused of trying to use those publishers to push its own lobbying line.
The new EU copyright directive is close to being finalized, but it might still be derailed by a plenary vote in the European Parliament. That’s where all the members of the Parliament (MEPs) vote collectively—so far the law has only been approved by the Parliament’s legal affairs committee.
So Google sent a list of MEPs to publishers participating in the Digital News Initiative. According to the Financial Times, Google told the publishers: “If you feel strongly about this, please consider contacting the MEPs.”
“It’s outrageous that Google would once again be using a forum it publicly convened to help the publishing industry as a vehicle to lobby on behalf of Google’s own interests and confuse the market,” Jason Kint, the CEO of publishing trade association Digital Content Next told the FT.
Wait. Why would publishers even side with Google on this?
Aha, here’s the thing. When Google shut down Google News in Spain, in response to that country’s ancillary copyright law, the hardest-hit victims were smaller Spanish publishers, who suddenly lost their main means of presenting stories to the public. And the law didn’t just affect Google, which never directly made money off Google News anyway: small Spanish news aggregators were annihilated, as their entire business model had just been made untenable.
The truth is that such a law will give a huge advantage to large media companies that have a traditional presence on newsstands and other pre-Internet platforms, by hobbling their online competition. It’s almost as if that’s the real aim of the game here, rather than getting Google to pay up—which it will likely never do. If anything, the new EU copyright directive would most probably lead Google to shut down Google News across the entire European Union.
So why are politicians backing this?
The biggest political push for this new law has come from countries such as Germany and France that have very large and powerful legacy media companies with a lot of influence over their national governments.
But European politicians are likely also backing the move because they see it as another way of reining in Google and other U.S. tech giants—Facebook (FB) would also be seriously affected. They don’t seem to realize that the law would in reality hurt smaller, European online businesses much more, and that consumers would ultimately pay the price by having less access to information.
Members of the European Parliament will vote on whether to move the law forward in early July. There’s a campaign to influence them against the law, called #SaveYourInternet. The campaign is backed by digital rights groups and other non-profits from around the world. And yes, some (such as OpenForum Europe) receive funding from Google and other big U.S. tech companies.
But even though there’s much to be said for the current push to crack down on over-powerful tech giants, that doesn’t mean every such measure is a good one. When it comes to unintended consequences, the EU copyright directive is set to be a doozy.