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European Parliament to vote on divisive copyright bill

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The European Parliament is due to vote on a new copyright directive, which critics say could lead to the elimination of much legitimate and satirical content – such as memes – while punishing smaller companies.

A committee of MEPs have voted in favour of a new copyright bill: the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive. The bill will now be passed on to the entire European Parliament to be voted on in July.

The directive represents the first major update to European copyright law since 2001, when the internet was a very different place.

The most controversial aspect of the bill is known as ‘Article 13’, which was approved by the committee by 15 votes to 10. Article 13 makes website owners liable for the content posted on their platforms if it violates copyright law. Websites found to be hosting remixes of songs and videos, fan edits, humorously manipulated images and even memes could be found liable and face fines. In order to prevent copyright infringement, website hosts are expected to automatically filter user-submitted content.

Critics have described the bill as “disastrous”, and an imminent threat to the internet, while many users have expressed worry about the likely impact of the bill on everyday online activities, such as creating and sharing memes.

There are concerns that there are no reliable automatic filtering technologies available at present; even the wealthiest and largest platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have to complement their algorithms with tens of thousands of human moderators.

Last week, dozens of influential tech figures – including internet founding fathers Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales – wrote to Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, calling on him to oppose the directive.

“As creators ourselves, we share the concern that there should be a fair distribution of revenues from the online use of copyright works that benefits creators, publishers and platforms alike,” they wrote in the letter.

“But Article 13 is not the right way to achieve this. By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 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.”

The letter argues that rather than affecting only the large Silicon Valley platforms – which have the funds to comply with the bill through automated filtering of all user-generated content– Article 13 will most strongly affect small companies, including European start-ups, and individual users including those contributing to open collaboration platforms such as Wikipedia and GitHub.

Meanwhile, another article of the directive has attracted some criticism. Article 11, which was passed by 13 votes to 12, aims to tackle the dominance of aggregate platforms such as Google and Facebook while supporting struggling news organisations. It will require websites to pay for a licence in order to quote snippets of text from news sources. While the measure has been welcomed by publishers, it has also been criticised for being unclear about what constitutes a snippet, and for disproportionately affecting smaller platforms which may struggle to pay for a licence.

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