Increasing inequality and decreasing upward mobility and opportunity in this century is well documented in Thomas Picketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century. However, one of the few, if not only, counter-points to this disturbing trend has been the internet. The internet has allowed innovation and hard work to compete with money and size. Everywhere, app developers, media startups, self-published authors and actors, small business bloggers, and so on have attracted customers and fans where once they were shutout by large business titans that controlled access to the public attention. Not so long ago, the options for startups were limited. Expensive ads in the Yellow Page, a local newspaper, or on TV were practically the only way to get attention. Then came the internet.
Predictably, the established and old-money interests are working hard to put the internet freedom genie back in the bottle. The assault on net neutrality by cable companies in the U.S. is a key example. Typically, these assaults are disguised as having some other purpose. E.U. capitalists are no less altruistic. Under the guise of seeking to put royalties in pockets of content creators, there is a proposed law close to being passed in the E.U. that would radically change and limit the democracy that has characterized the internet. The new law would charge anyone publishing a hyper-text link to another article, i.e., links that quote or show a thumbnail of the source material.
Links to other places on the Internet are a critical part of how we consume online content. Of course, websites like Facebook, Tumblr, Google, and Buzzfeed rely on links to drive their platform. But so do news, academic sites, mom and pop bloggers, non-profit organizations, and startup businesses. For most of the Internet’s existence, this practice has been accepted as free and acceptable on the Internet. In the European Union, like Spain and Germany before it, the government is taking note of the amount of revenue they believe link-sharing could generate. Though the EU law has yet to pass the law, these governments have sought to generate revenue for traditional media-powerhouses through a “link tax.” Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News and News Corp. has been a strong advocate of such restrictions.
Moreover, the law is written in such a way that it applies regardless of the authors wishes, thus overriding open-source content sharing arrangements like Creative Commons, and threatening public services like Wikipedia.
The concept of the link tax is relatively simple. The proposed Article 11 would provide that if an online platform wishes to utilize links on its site, it must get a license from any content publisher before reproducing via link or snippet on the platform. Effectively, copyright protections would expand to prevent links, memes, and thumbnails from being used on a platform. The disingenuous argument is that content publisher could then have a fairer share of the revenue it created and the platform collected. However, this argument ignores the fact that these links do no more than direct the reader to the source article. It is like charging an author for each footnote referencing a source material. Rather than steal readership, hyper-links increase readership for the original author.
There are serious concerns about the law’s restraint on the public’s access to information. Only companies with the financial capacity to pay for the content can disseminate the links, and they are likely to maintain their power. Therefore, rather than burdening titans like Facebook and Google, the new law is more likely to strengthen their grip on media. Small bloggers will be effectively prevented from linking to source material, and more importantly, will unlikely receive links back from other bloggers. This will drive a dagger through the heart of a key component of the internet democracy that has been so revolutionary.
To help enforce the provisions and protect against copyright infringments, the EU is simultaneously seeking to pass Article 13. Article 13 would require platforms to use “censorship machines.” These machines operate in the same way as YouTube’s Content ID system has operated for years, using algorithms to screen content for copyright infringement. As has been seen over the years with YouTube’s system, these machines are not without problems. At a preliminary level, these machines are not capable of distinguishing between violations and parodies or other fair uses. They could even mistake images within a larger picture as copyright infringements (e.g. a billboard in the background of a family photo).
Furthermore, algorithms frequently miss violations. That means that in order to fully prevent infringing materials, all content would have to be scanned manually. This is an impossible task for almost any platform to use, especially when the content is crowdsourced.
Beyond the ethical and technical issues, models of this system have failed to be effective. Notably, two EU countries, Spain and Germany, have tried a link tax. Julia Reda, a German member of the European parliament, recognized that journalists did not receive any additional funding. In Spain, Google simply stopped operating in the country rather than take on the expense.
The EU has an important decision to make. It is one which may drastically alter who has access to information and who has a voice. It is one that is more likely to worsen and entrench income disparity. The purported reasons and goals of the law are dubious, at best. The measure is likely to be disastrous for startups and innovation, as well as for free speech, dissemination of information, and equality. Let’s hope the EU does not follow the example of Trump cronyism by attempting to return control of media to those with money and size rather than innovation and hard work. Worldwide, democracy and inequality are under assault by the forces of autocracy and old-money capital to re-establish their hegemony. This seems like a another step in that direction.
Original article by Ridgeway Woulfe, edited by Wm. Adams to add editorial flourishes.