Populism & Copyright, Part I: The ‘Link Tax‘

Disinformation. Foreign interference. Identity politics. We might normally associate these terms with Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, but this summer a new political crisis occurred at their intersection: the campaign against EU copyright reform.

Left-wing supporters of the open internet and right-wing supporters of closed borders make strange bedfellows, yet the similarities are unmistakable. Both have run political campaigns with questionable overseas backing, fabricated narratives of an arrogant elite attacking their support base’s way of life, and buried rational debate with vitriol.

We are lucky that it ultimately matters little whether the proposed copyright reforms fail. The same cannot be said for the fate of healthy democratic discourse, which is threatened every time these events occur. Europe must take this recent bout as a learning opportunity so that it can be better prepared when populism next strikes.

This series of articles will document the events of this summer, contrast them against current efforts to defend western liberal democracy, and examine them for new solutions to the issues raised. It is not a critique of the copyright proposals themselves.

This article is the first in the series and examines disinformation: the deliberate spreading of untrue or deceptive statements.

Part II: Foreign Proxies — Part III: The ‘Meme Ban’

The Lie

One of the more popular arguments against the EU’s proposed copyright reform has been that it introduces a “link tax” which requires websites to pay a newspaper whenever they, or their users, link to one of its news stories.

This claim is fake. Article 11 is about 300 words long and performs exactly one function: extending existing copyright law to online press publishers, with several limitations. Currently such publishers instead rely on authors assigning copyright to them through private legal agreements. The proposal contains no changes to the meaning of copyright, nor to what can be copyrighted.

Despite being patently untrue, the claim has been a huge success for campaigners. It is frequently repeated by Julia Reda MEP, a member of Germany’s Piratenpartei who has risen to prominence in the debate; it has spawned the Canadian website SaveTheLink.org; and it is prominent among the rallying cries heard on various online discussion forums frequented by young Europeans.

As sources of populist ire these discussion forums are unusual. Despite being dominated by one viewpoint they have never quite formed the insulated echo chambers that typify other populist movements. Dissenting opinions on Reddit, while not overwhelmingly popular, have included such messages as:

The points of discussion vary, but these comments all have one thing in common. Their authors read the proposal for themselves.

The copyright directive’s home on the EUR-Lex legal database.

Unfortunately, finding the text of a proposed EU directive is no mean feat. Citizens are likely to search for memorable buzzwords, and these lead to the websites of the campaigners who coined them. If those sites advertise the text it is in edited form, with anything that undermines their arguments censored.

Even when one does find the unfiltered proposal there is confusion due to the EU’s unusual legislative process. After an initial proposal is produced by the European Commission (an executive body), it is sent to both the European Council (which represents EU governments) and European Parliament (which represents EU citizens) for scrutiny. These two bodies develop their own versions of the proposal in tandem before entering “trilogue” negotiations with the commission to integrate everything into a final version which the Parliament votes on.

For most of the duration of this process there are thus three versions of the proposal in existence. One of these is little more than a first draft, and until finalised the other two exist only as near-impenetrable streams of individual amendments. The system is confounding for members of the public and gives campaigners a figleaf for ignoring developments which address their concerns. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to change.

The European Commission responds to Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder turned lobbyist.

There have been attempts from within the European Commission to stand up to disinformation. The body’s official Twitter account has made two forays into the debate: in early 2017 to debunk the ‘link tax’, and again more recently (show above) to dispel the notion that Wikipedia would be affected by other provisions of the proposal.

In both cases drawing on the actual text of the proposal, in many cases simply quoting from it, left campaigners struggling to respond. They swiftly abandoned their initial arguments in favour of vague and unrelated claims. This is encouraging, but posting on Twitter once a year achieves nothing. The commission’s messages were presented to an insignificant slice of the public for a few short moments, giving them next to no weight in the ongoing public debate. A long-lasting, high-visibility solution is needed.

A Source of Truth

Countering disinformation is an existential challenge to liberal democracies for which there will be no quick fix. Ambitious ideas are being trialled. Earlier this year an impressive array of international politicians and diplomats launched the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a group which hopes to apply cutting-edge technology to nip election meddling in the bud. Among the suggestions made in a report on disinformation compiled for the European Commission is an EU-wide drive to introduce Media and Information Literacy as a school subject. Other efforts are surely underway at intelligence agencies across the western world.

The European Commission’s report on disinformation.

There is no need to wait for these long-term efforts to bear fruit. Disinformation about the EU’s copyright proposal can be demolished by juxtaposing it with the proposal itself, and citizens who have done so have repeatedly spoken out about their discoveries. It is clear that legislatures can improve defences against such attacks with today’s technology by making their legislation, especially drafts, easily accessible by the public, rather than leaving them buried in dense and bureaucratic legal databases.

This means creating an approachable website which plainly presents most recent approved version of each text, drawing to attention any specific sections generating public interest and any significant differences between the Council’s and Parliament’s versions. It categorically does not mean attempting to persuade, as the Commission’s website tries to. Readers must be able to trust the website as a source of unbiased truth and attempts to shape their opinions would taint its image. It should be run exclusively by apolitical staff and not annotate or edit the text, other than to add links to referenced legislation and definitions of legal terms.

Advertising will be the key to the success of any public information service.

Creating such a service is easy. The hard part is directing attention to it. It would be a fool’s errand to compete for search rankings on each individual issue. Instead any such site should be promoted on its own terms via public advertising campaigns (another reason to keep it strictly apolitical), building a brand that citizens think of when they see discussions about current or proposed law. Even if only a minority visit the site of their own accord, many more will see the informed contributions they make to debates and follow the links they provide. While interpretation mistakes will inevitably occur, with a little optimism we can view these as learning experiences which encourage more reading and deeper understanding.

A sceptic might say that journalists in general should be doing such work. There is some truth in that sentiment, but disinformation reveals a weakness in the fourth estate. Being by definition untrue, and very often also lurid, it is not reported on by reputable news sources until it is too late.

Dedicated fact-checking services like Full Fact or the BBC News Reality Check series are helpful but ultimately fall into the same trap, since they focus on the topics which have already made news headlines. American fact-checking website PolitiFact does better by regularly analysing quotations from politicians and other public figures even if they are not currently the subject of news stories, but this still covers only a small slice of the multitude of public debates ongoing at any one time.

Even when coverage does begin, it can be lacklustre. At one point an anonymous BBC News story uncritically repeated the ‘link tax’ claim in its own voice. The picture had much improved two weeks later, with this article by senior correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones devoid of fake claims. But by that point the outrage had peaked and the votes had been counted. Had the vote been final, a disinformation campaign would have triumphed over Europe.

The next article in the Populism & Copyright series will focus on foreign interference.