Should Laws Affecting 500 Million Lives Be Forged Behind Our Backs?
I’m deeply worried about the state of democracy in the European Union. My concerns regard the legislative process in general and the so called Copyright Directive (the biggest threat to the internet as we know it) in particular.
First I’ll shortly describe the Copyright Directive in a simplified manner. Then I’ll explain why the process of its making is completely undemocratic and dangerous.
The Copyright Directive
The Copyright Directive is many things, but two of its most troublesome aspects are Article 11 and Article 13.
Article 11 proposes a so called ”link tax”, forcing online platforms to pay publishers (e.g. newspapers) a fee if its users post content from the publishers. You know those snippets with a headline and thumbnail image when you post links? That’s what the publishers want to charge money for. This might sound like a good idea, since one could argue that newspapers should get paid if a platform displays their content. But in a digital context, things get out of hand rather quickly. If you want to share a news article here on Facebook, you might be prevented from doing so if Facebook doesn’t have a ”link tax agreement” with that specific news outlet. Facebook will probably afford to pay up, though. But what if you run an independent blog? What if you want to share a news article on a forum? And so on.
Article 13 proposes to force online platforms to deploy ”upload filters” that scan everything the users upload in order to detect copyright infringements. For instance, if you’re a political commentator and upload a video in which you reference a 5 second clip from a news report, the upload filter might catch you for copyright infringement and prevent you from publishing the video. Or perhaps you want to upload a video of yourself doing whatever. But if a copyrighted song is being played in the background, the upload filter won’t like it.
While this may sound reasonable at first, in the name of ”content creators should get paid”, it’s important to also see how this messes with the entire foundation of the internet.
Namely that it will result in an unevenly distributed hiearchy of power, instead of the internet’s current (relatively) flat power structure. Because it’s the flatness that makes the internet beautiful, powerful and useful. But with the Copyright Directive in place, only the big platforms with lots of money will afford to pay the link tax and deploy upload filters.
This means that you can only share certain information on these platforms and not elsewhere on the internet.
Thus, you will be at the mercy of the big platforms.
Because what if you decide that Facebook, YouTube or Twitter aren’t useful or fun for you anymore and you want to hangout elsewhere? Well, have fun not being able to share news articles or upload videos, since chances are that this ”elsewhere” will neither afford the link tax nor the resources to deploy an EU-compliant upload filter. In other words, this will also stifle internet innovations and startups on an unprecedented scale. Plus, with sophisticated upload filters required on every corner of the internet, this opens up a Pandora’s box of potential surveillance abuse.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see how the consequences of Article 11 and Article 13 will quickly spiral out of control and end up concentrating power in the hands of the few, as well as increasing the risk of privacy abuse.
Again, on the surface it might seem like an innocent link tax and upload filter. But if you analyze the consequences, it becomes clear what’s at stake here: the free and global conversation is heavily under threat.
To say the least.
Behind Closed Doors
I think most EU citizens expect that the European Union creates and deploys legislation in a democratic and transparent manner. Even if the legislation itself might have undemocratic consequences (such as the Copyright Directive).
This is not the case, however. A lot of legislation is in fact designed behind closed doors in a process known as ’trilogues’. This is an informal process between the parliament, council and commission, with the aim of quickly reaching an agreement and then deploy the new legislation.
Here’s why this is troublesome:
- Only a selected few individuals, who don’t have to disclose their names (!), participate in these trilogues
- Everything takes place behind closed doors
- Documents from these meetings aren’t released to the public
- Access to meeting documents can be denied
- Trilogue participants may thus be affected by lobbyists without detection
- The trilogue process bypasses the parliament and thus the electorate
I can’t help but view ’trilogues’ as EU newspeak for ”forging laws behind the citizens’ backs because they are stupid and annoying”. This is not a high standard of democracy. Period.
The free and open internet is under an immense threat, the results of which may be irreversible. And all of this is happening through a process that allows a few unknown individuals to wield power over 500 million citizens.
An undemocratic process is dismantling the very frontier and safeguard of democracy itself: the internet.
This is not the European Union that I once voted for. I believe we can do better.
But maybe there’s still hope. Because whatever that comes out of the trilogue behind closed doors, it still has to pass the parliament once more.
If you want to act, join the fight here: https://saveyourinternet.eu/act/
It’s not too late, yet.