Cloud of Uncertainty Hangs Over UGC and News Aggregators as EU Approves New Copyright Directive

The European Parliament earlier today voted in favour of the EU’s controversial new Copyright Directive by a margin of 348 to 278. The new laws are designed to strengthen digital protections for copyright holders, but could be damaging for content sharing platforms, as well as the creators who use them.

The directive has drawn controversy due to two specific articles. Article 11 forces search engines and news aggregators (like Google News) to pay for links to third party sites, which Google has claimed could see Google News shut down in Europe.

But Article 13 has caused the most debate. This article would hold larger tech companies, the likes of Facebook and YouTube, responsible for copyrighted content which is posted on their platforms without a license. That means that if, for example, a user uploads a clip from a TV show or film to YouTube without permission from the rights holder, YouTube will now be held accountable.

The likes of YouTube already have systems in place to detect and remove copyrighted content, but these systems are far from perfect, and the company feared that it would be held to impossibly high standards based on draft versions of the law. The final wording of Article 13 has been softened somewhat in response to these concerns, asking that content-sharing platforms make their “best efforts” to ensure copyrighted content isn’t made public, and that any content which slips through the net is quickly removed once the platform owner is made aware of it.

But Google said there is still uncertainty around how the law would be implemented and enforced. “The final version of the EU Copyright Directive is an improvement, but we remain concerned,” said YouTube in statement. “Article 13 could still have unintended consequences that may harm Europe’s creative and digital economy. We urge EU member states to keep these concerns in mind as they move to implement the new rules.”

The tech giants haven’t been the law’s only critics. Internet freedom campaigners have argued that the new law will kill off internet ‘memes’, which often involve small snippets of copyrighted content, and that the law places expensive obligations on smaller platforms which can’t necessarily afford copyright filters.

Again, the EU has taken measure to assuage these concerns. Article 13 only applies to companies which have an annual turnover of over €10 million, in an effort to protect smaller publishers and platforms. And the European Parliament has said that short, viral video clips will be specifically excluded from the directive – though again, this is a somewhat grey area, and it’s not clear what will be considered permissible once the law comes into force.

Despite these adjustment, many are still not convinced. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Germany last week to oppose the directive, and a petition calling for the MEPs to reject the new laws has picked up over five million signatures.

“Article 13’s well-intended copyright laws could instead see the thriving online creation community severely stifled,” said Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN. “Companies hosting user-generated content will have to implement content filters that are often too rigid and overzealous in their blocking.” Migliano speculated that many European web users will turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the new rules.

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