Catherine Stihler, Labour MEP for Scotland, says proposals to reform copyright law in the EU risk internet freedom, and we desperately need to retain our voice in Europe because these laws will affect us whether we Brexit or not.
For nearly two years, proposals to reform copyright law have been debated and scrutinised in the European Parliament. It’s been a long and arduous process focusing on what appears a dry and complicated topic, so it has attracted very little media attention.
But what is planned will impact on every single person reading this article, and nearly every single person who uses the internet.
Last week, it came to a vote in Strasbourg. Discussions went to the wire, and fortunately the proposal as it was can be amended during the September plenary. The result was picked up by the media, but it was hardly front-page news. If the plans do ever get the go-ahead, however, rest assured that this will become a huge issue.
In a nutshell, the reforms relate to copyright ownership of material posted online. The principle is that the original owner of the material – be it a photo, a song, or a written article – should be supported. It’s a laudable aim: photographers, artists and writers deserve to be properly remunerated for their work. But the crackdown goes too far.
It would introduce blunt, real-time filtering using an algorithm of every piece of content that is uploaded to sites like YouTube, Google, Twitter or Facebook. Anything which could be seen as a copyright breach will be automatically deleted. That includes memes because the uploader doesn’t own the original photo, karaoke videos because the uploader doesn’t own the original song, and online newspaper articles because the uploader doesn’t own the original piece.
It will massively restrict the freedom of the internet. And far from supporting creators, it could ultimately backfire.
A large portion of news providers on the internet are financed by page impressions and the resulting advertising income, which is generated by people visiting their site via external links. If a platform is not willing to pay the licensing fees, those page views don’t happen.
When similar rules were introduced in Spain, traffic to websites of small and medium sized news publishers fell by up to 30 per cent, impacting on local journalists, and Google News largely withdrew from the market. If that happens in Scotland, where newspapers are already making huge cutbacks, it could put this vital industry at further risk and allow the spread of ‘fake news’ posted by the conspiracy theory bloggers who poison Scottish politics.
More widely, there are real concerns about the effect on freedom of expression raised by experts ranging from the UN special rapporteur David Kaye to the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
I am determined to protect artists and cultural diversity in Europe. As vice-chair of the European Parliament’s internal market committee, I have been focused on these proposals for months, leading the campaign to reject the restrictions.
We owe it to everyone in Europe to give this directive the full debate necessary to achieve broad support. So I am delighted with last week’s vote. But the clock is ticking. At the end of March, if Theresa May has her way, I will lose my vote – along with every other MEP from the UK. Britain will lose its influence at the top table.
Brexit does not offer a get-out clause from this; companies such as Google and Twitter will have to conform to any legislation to be able to operate across Europe anyway.
It is just one more example that proves why Brexit is so misguided.
Last Friday evening, before David Davis resigned, the Tory Cabinet put forward proposals for our future relationship with the EU, but the UK Government is quickly going to find that the other 27 member states won’t tolerate cherry-picking.
As the reality of Brexit becomes clear, everyone has the right to have their say on the final deal. That’s why we need a People’s Vote.
I urge the Labour leadership to back this, so that we can reverse Brexit and still have influence in the European Parliament where so many important decisions – such as how we use the internet – are made.