While the debate over net neutrality rages on in the United States, Europe is dealing with a controversial topic of its own, one that could fundamentally alter the online landscape. Specifically, the European Parliament voted in favor of a set of changes to copyright law outlined in the Copyright Directive.
On the surface, the bill aims "to make certain that artists, notably musicians, performers and script authors, as well as news publishers and journalists," are properly compensated for their work "when it is used by sharing platforms such as YouTube or Facebook, and news aggregators such as Google News." It's all about "fair play for artists and journalists," according to Parliament.
How the bill goes about it, however, has caused a ruckus. The most controversial parts of the bill are Article 13 and Article 11, in that order. Article 13 holds companies like Google and Facebook liable for copyrighted material that users upload. To protect against this, services like YouTube would need to implement aggressive automatic content filters. Some critics say the filters would essentially amount to surveillance and would ultimately hurt freedom of expression, and could even lead to the death of memes.
"Anything you want to publish will need to first be approved by these filters," Julia Reda, a German lawmaker who opposes the law, told CNN. "Perfectly legal content like parodies and memes will be caught in the crosshairs."
Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, echoed Reda's sentiment in an email to CNBC.
"The plan for 'robo-copyright would target memes, parodies, and clips of people cheering at football matches," Killock said. "Machines can't judge human culture. When they can, we'll have bigger issues to think through than copyright enforcement."
Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Alex Voss, the Member of European Parliament (MEP) who is spearheading the overhaul to copyright rules, said the fears are unfounded.
"If we are looking to memes, the legitimate use of memes is not a question of Article 13, it is of copyright," Voss said.
The fear of overreaching copyright rules extends beyond memes, though. Article 11 would implement what critics are calling a "link tax." According to a scathing breakdown on BoingBoing, Article 11 would make it so that sites would not be able to link to a news story if the link text includes more than a single word from the article's headline. Sites like Google News and Facebook could then have to pay news sites to post their headlines.
Several prominent figures have attached their names to a letter (PDF) urging against the new rules. World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is among them, as are a number of professors and developers.
"The European Commission’s proposal for Article 13 of the proposed Directive for Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive was well-intended. 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. 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 states.
The good news for those who oppose the measures is that this is far from a done deal. As explained by Arstechnica, the proposal now enters into a negotiation between Parliament, the Council of the Europe Union, and the European Commission. Should the three bodies agree to a final, revised set of rules, it would be sent to each of the 28 EU member countries for implementation in national laws.