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Internet Pioneers Warn New EU Rules Would Turn Web Into "Tool for Automated Surveillance and Control"

As key legislative panel approves measure, experts say copyright directive poses an "imminent threat" to online users and the network itself

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A European Parliament committee on Wednesday advanced copyright legislation that experts warn poses a serious threat to the internet as we know it. (Photo: @EFF/Twitter)

The European Union (EU) on Wednesday took a step toward enacting new internet copyright rules that experts warn pose "an imminent threat to the future of this global network" and threaten to create a "censorship machine."

The Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) passed the Copyright Directive, which could now move to negotiations with EU member states ahead of a full vote by the European Parliament. Internet pioneers and digital rights activists are raising alarms about two aspects of the legislation, as The Verge explains:

Although most of the directive simply updates technical language for copyright law in the age of the internet, it includes two highly controversial provisions. These are Article 11, a "link tax," which would force online platforms like Facebook and Google to buy licenses from media companies before linking to their stories; and Article 13, an "upload filter," which would require that everything uploaded online in the EU is checked for copyright infringement.

Article 11, also called the snippet tax, isn't expected to significantly affect major corporations such as Google, which can afford such licenses, but the impacts of the provision will likely be felt by smallers organizations. Additionally, critics say its language is too vague—as Gizmodo notes, "Article 11 doesn't bother to even define what constitutes a link"—which could enable governments to censor content for politically-motivated reasons.

Article 13 would replace the Ecommerce Directive, which generally protects online platforms from copyright penalties so long as the content was upoaded by a user. Web exerpts say running all content through a copyright filter before it is uploaded would be immensely burdonsome and expensive, especially for smaller platforms.

In terms of the directive's sweeping consequences, as Gizmodo put it, "Memes, news, Wikipedia, art, privacy, and the creative side of fandom are all at risk of being destroyed or kneecapped."

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In response to the mounting threat to the internet as we know it, more than 70 "of the internet's original architects and pioneers and their successors"—including world wide web founder Tim Berners-Lee and "father of the internet" Vint Cerf—wrote a letter (pdf) to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani about Article 13, which they warn could transform "the internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users."

The letter emphasizes that Article 13 would most notably affect European startups,  small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and ordinary users—"not only those who upload music or video (frequently in reliance upon copyright limitations and exceptions, that Article 13 ignores), but even those who contribute photos, text, or computer code to open collaboration platforms such as Wikipedia and GitHub."

"We support the consideration of measures that would improve the ability for creators to receive fair remuneration for the use of their works online. But we cannot support Article 13, which would mandate internet platforms to embed an automated infrastructure for monitoring and censorship deep into their networks," the letter states.

With a final vote on the directive expected around the end of the year, European Digital Rights (EDRi) has outlined steps that EU institutions can take to change the legislation.

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