Cory Doctorow

The EU’s bid to police the internet is going badly wrong

The copyright in the single digital market directive combines the deadliest ingredients in public policy: it is important, boringly complicated, and its effects are a long way off. This week, it was supposed to take a major step towards becoming law, but it has foundered – for now. The directive is largely technical tweaks to European copyright, which were last revised in 2001. But two clauses are so controversial that they’ve spurred more than four million Europeans to write to the Parliament to object to them and ‘save the internet!’. The changes have also been denounced by copyright experts, Tim Berners-Lee, the UN, movie companies and football leagues. At issue is Article 11, which makes online platforms obtain paid licenses before they may link to news sites; and Article 13, which forces online platforms to filter their users’ words, audio, pictures and videos to block anything that appears in open, crowdsourced databases of supposedly copyrighted works. These have been under furious revision through “trilogues” – closed door meetings between different EU stakeholders – which were supposed to conclude this week, but instead ended in acrimony and with a new draft that is, if anything, worse than ever. The greatest controversy comes from Article 13 – the copyright filters. It requires algorithms to check everything posted to the internet for violations of copyright. Experts have repeatedly briefed the EU that automated systems are terrible at making judgments about the legitimacy of human communications. Article 13’s most powerful supporter, the German MEP Axel Voss, went to great (unsuccessful) lengths to obfuscate the role that filters will play in enforcing the legislation. The draft says platforms are responsible for ensuring that their users never post anything that infringes copyright, even for a moment. AIs are obviously unsuited to this task, but it’s even more obvious that this isn’t possible through human moderation: there aren’t enough experts in the world to evaluate the copyright of every tweet, Facebook update, YouTube upload, etc.

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