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Is the EU plotting revenge on the populist blogs?

Publishers abhor digital free-riders and want financial compensation. Digital libertarians call it a ‘link tax’. But is the new copyright law in reality aimed at the populism transforming European politics?

A wave of popular discontent is currently sweeping the Western world. In the United States, it manifests itself in public support for Donald Trump, the billionaire entrepreneur and anti-politician who, to everyone’s surprise, finds himself the current Republican Presidential candidate. In Britain, popular discontent manifested itself in the public vote for Brexit; in continental Europe – in Germany, the upstart AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party, in France, the Front national – so-called populist anti-establishment parties are winning local and regional elections. In France, Marine le Pen, the Front national’s leader, even fancies her chances for the French presidency in elections next year.

What these movements have in common is that they mobilise ‘normal people’s’ disenchantment with globalisation in all its aspects: the shift of democratic accountability and power away from the local level to international (and European) bureaucrats and financial institutions. Above all, anger at mass immigration across Europe’s borders and from outside Europe, whose negative aspects mainly affect the working class (longer doctor’s queues and strange languages on the street) and whose positive benefits are enjoyed by the upper middle class (cheap handymen) and employers (more candidates to choose from).

One further aspect of this popular discontent is loathing at what is called the ‘mainstream media’, which allegedly exaggerates the benefits of EU membership and mass immigration. In Europe, especially in Germany and Scandinavia, the mainstream media are longer seen as holding power to account. Rather , they are frequently seen to be too close to an increasingly remote elite and cosmopolitan liberal upper middle class, which includes the politicians, who don’t (for now) have to live with the negative consequences of their nation-state-attenuating projects.

The populist movements in Europe would not have spread so far and so fast without the existence of populist (for lack of a better word) blogs that often link to the latest ‘lies’ of the mainstream media. It is a symbiotic relationship. Severely understaffed and underfunded, these blogs-out-of-a-bedroom don’t have the resources (or perhaps the desire) to carry out their own reporting. Rather, they specialise in linking to an established publication’s articles, summarising the aforementioned publication’s ‘lies’ and giving their spin on it. These blogs – complete with their aggressive demolitions of the established media – are spread far and wide when readers forward the blog posts to their friends on Twitter and Facebook.

In Sweden at least, where demographics are changing faster than almost anywhere else in Europe, these some of these blogs have almost as many readers as the online editions of the larger newspapers; they are a real power in the land. The anti-immigration, anti-European Union Sweden Democrat party is currently the largest party in the polls. If they win in 2018, Brexit might be followed by Swexit – and they will have these blogs to thank for their success.

So is the latest piece of legislation going through Brussels on copyright aimed at curbing the power of these kinds of blogs?

One does wonder. Various free speech NGOs (not the same crowd as the populists) talk about the ‘link tax’ buried (as usual) in the fine print of the commission proposal.

The whole debate grew out of the insistence of the German and Spanish publishing associations that Google financially compensate media publishers for running summaries of their articles on its news aggregator, Google News (an indispensable source for journalists, by the way). Now that the idea has migrated up to the European level, it has, according to its detractors, become a much more sweeping law that could require a licence or a copyright fee every time a website, however small, links to another website and contains some material from the article linked to – to comment on it, or denigrate it.

In other words, the big left-liberal publishers would get an opportunity to smite their anti-immigrant penny-blog tormentors with licences they couldn’t afford. Of course, it would have ramifications for the whole internet. Linking is the essence of the internet.

Doubtless this issue won’t have escaped researchers of the populist parties in the European Parliament, through which this legislation must first pass. There will be interesting debates in the months ahead.

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