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'Dark Day for Internet Freedom': EU Approves Rules to Create Online Censorship Machine

"Never forget what they did here," tweeted NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden

People protest in Berlin, Germany, against the planned EU copyright reform. (Photo: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke)

Despite widespread grassroots opposition, the European Parliament Tuesday approved sweeping copyright rules that critics warn will spawn an internet "censorship machine."

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden decried the vote, tweeting, in German, "Never forget what they did here."

"Outside Europe, friends of the internet will have to brace themselves to push back against copyright maximalists attempting to export this terrible directive to the rest of the world."
—Danny O'Brien, Electronic Frontier Foundation

In a blog post, Danny O'Brien—international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)—called passage of the copyright rules "a stunning rejection of the will of five million online petitioners, and over 100,000 protestors this weekend."

"The European Parliament has abandoned common-sense and the advice of academics, technologists, and U.N. human rights experts, and approved the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive in its entirety," O'Brien wrote. "There's now little that can stop these provisions from becoming the law of the land across Europe."

Julia Reda, a German member of the European Parliament (MEPs) and outspoken opponent of the copyright directive, said it is a "dark day for internet freedom" after the rules overwhelmingly passed.

Articles 11 and 13, the two most controversial components of the copyright overhaul, were left unchanged after MEPs voted against allowing amendments that would have removed them.

"Today's vote is a major blow to the open internet. This directive positions the internet as a tool for corporations and profits—not for people," said OpenMedia Executive Director Laura Tribe. "By approving Articles 11 and 13, the EU Parliament not only rubber stamped bad legislation, but also ignored the voices of millions of its own concerned constituents."

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As The Verge's James Vincent reported, "Article 11 lets publishers charge platforms like Google News when they display snippets of news stories, while Article 13 (renamed Article 17 in the most recent draft of the legislation) gives sites like YouTube new duties to stop users from uploading copyrighted content."

Critics warn that Article 11 could ultimately become a "link tax," which would charge websites for linking to news articles.

Vincent continued:

In both cases, critics say these well-intentioned laws will create trouble. Article 13, for example, could lead to the introduction of "upload filters" that will scan all user content before it's uploaded to sites to remove copyrighted material. The law does not explicitly call for such filters, but critics say it will be an inevitability as sites seek to avoid penalties.

Advocates for the directive say that claims Article 13 will "kill off memes" are exaggerations, and that the legislation includes protections for parody. But experts say any filters that are introduced will likely be error-prone and ineffective. They also note that given the cost of deploying such technology, the law may have the opposite effect to its intent—accidentally solidifying the dominance of U.S. tech giants over online spaces.

Opponents say the fight against the directive is not over yet, as the new rules are likely to face legal challenges.

As O'Brien noted, there will be "opportunities for the courts to rein in the directive—or even throw out its worst articles entirely."

"The battle will have to continue... with millions of everyday users uniting online and on the streets to demand their right to be free of censorship, and free to communicate without algorithmic censors or arbitrary licensing requirements," O'Brien wrote. "And outside Europe, friends of the internet will have to brace themselves to push back against copyright maximalists attempting to export this terrible directive to the rest of the world."

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