A Choice for Europe

An optimistic, innovative future for artists and users of the internet; or the cynical status quo of “it can’t be done.”

by John Degen

(Image re-used here with permission to me from me. First used here.)

Social media the last couple weeks has been filled with a great deal of discussion, argument, muddled information, and even intentional disinformation about this week’s European Parliament debate and vote on the Copyright Directive.

Proponents of the Directive (and I count myself as one of those) genuinely believe it will help level the playing field around online content, maintaining access for users while demanding greater responsibility and accountability from those online mega-platforms who have so wildly profited from drawing eyes to that content. Most importantly, it will layer in long-missing licensing and stewardship requirements designed to feed back some of the profits from online content use (and there sure is a LOT of profit, currently not going to the artists who create that content with their talent and labour).

Opponents of the Directive have chosen, for the most part, a house of horrors approach to criticism of new copyright rules. The rules will, we’re told, create automated censorship machines, link taxes, bans on the use of memes, while making it impossible for anyone to share holiday snaps of the Eiffel Tower on Facebook. In the end, these fearful, depressing advocates counsel that the Directive will kill the internet. “An extinction-level event” is how one anti-Directive pundit has described things.

Importantly, much of this avalanche of end-of-the-world prognostication aimed at EU lawmakers right now, seems to be coming from the same giant tech companies at whom the rules are aimed. And it has been rather conclusively shown that a great deal of supposed grass-roots opposition to the new rules is actually cooked on a stove in Silicon Valley. Spambots, automated e-mails, and robocalling… an advancing column of deceit and dirty tricks aimed at elected lawmakers, suggesting they might be complicit in killing the internet if they vote for artists’ rights.

I’d like to believe the vast majority of folks who have given the EU’s Copyright Directive even a passing moment’s reflection, would find themselves somewhere between these opinions, and maybe leaning toward the hopeful idea that it’s possible to introduce new rules to the internet that will fix some of its obvious flaws without cracking the whole thing up and ushering in a dystopian totalitarianism ruled by robots. The poll linked to above suggests I’m right to believe this, and so I do.

But that’s me. I walk on the sunny side of most streets.

I went online yesterday and tried to bring some of that sunshine with me, suggesting to one of the more high-profile opponents of the Copyright Directive that he might want to consider the thoughts and feelings of Europe’s professional artists, most of whom, individually or through their professional associations, have positioned themselves squarely behind the new rules.

It didn’t go so well.

Mainly because I could barely get my point to this fellow, via Twitter, before friends and supporters of his swamped my feed with their many thoughts about the state of my brain. A tsunami of trolling and abuse is not at all unexpected these days. It’s a standard feature of the crappy internet we’re being asked to accept as inevitable, isn’t it? So, I’m not complaining about that. Play in the sandbox, get sand in your eye.

Abject negativity

What struck me about the response yesterday was not the volume or the vehemence. It was the abject negativity and pessimism that was being expressed about the future of the internet and the possibility of innovation away from the state of things as they are. These were, for the most part, self-proclaimed tech experts, and they seemed to believe that technology was fatally limited and unfit for serious innovative use.

When folks yelled at me that upload filters function too poorly to be put in charge of copyright monitoring, I suggested maybe better upload filters could be developed, or different approaches could be taken that weren’t strictly filter-based (noting as well, that filter-requirements may very well be amended out of the Directive).

Impossible. Can’t be done. Technology doesn’t work that way.

I said maybe total automation might not be necessary, and that human interaction with content in conjunction with basic licensing and filtering tools — like most copyright collectives now work (rather efficiently) — answered most concerns and quelled fears. I even suggested, as I believe to be true, these could be good jobs answering employment need.

There’s too much content. Who would do that work? I’d rather see people work at something worthwhile.

Finally, an optimistic tech developer stepped into the conversation to note that he and his company had already developed one of these impossible, can’t be done, technology doesn’t work that way solutions that would answer the need created by greater platform accountability.

Huzzah, the impossible made possible!

He was mocked and accused of profiteering by those insistent, pessimistic voices of internet doom. This is the anti-Directive, anti-Article 13, anti-copyright side of the debate.

We’re stuck forever in this degraded state of being on the internet. Any change will wake the robots and spell our doom. Technology can’t do complicated things. If you do make a solution, you’re trying to hurt the internet.

Why not be hopeful?

Are these new European copyright laws perfect, and have they anticipated every possible future need or improvement to our internet experience? Highly unlikely. But is that the standard we must meet in Europe this week? Nothing can ever go wrong, and all problems must be fixed before they happen? No law ever does that, and yet we continue to progressively work toward a better world with better laws.

We all love to share news and photos about our lives, and many love to upload their own musical and video content and give it away for free. But we also all know that piracy, malevolent hacking, and outright fraud are rampant online. What’s more, we recognize the web is currently ruled by a group of Silicon Valley billionaires you can count on a couple hands, and that their combined net worth is larger than that of most economies.

Even if we might not know the precise numbers, we suspect all these features of the current internet have had a negative economic impact on certain sectors — the income of professional artists, for instance. Clearly, professional creation has been victimized by the extreme wealth concentration, unregulated power, and overall lawlessness of the web as we know it.

We can do better for the entire internet, for users and for artists (who are also users too, btw). And we can choose to optimistically believe that imperfect design coming out of the Copyright Directive will be improved and fixed through good faith innovation and amendment, as we move forward into that hopeful future.

I choose to believe those things. And I hope Europe’s lawmakers are feeling optimistic as well. It’s sunnier on this side of the street. Come on over.


John Degen is a novelist and poet. He is Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, an organisation representing more than 2,000 professional authors in Canada. He is also Chair of the International Authors Forum, which represents close to 700,000 professional authors worldwide. Views expressed are his own.

Read John Degen’s most popular Medium article: 5 Seriously Dumb Myths About Copyright The Media Should Stop Repeating.

© John Degen, 2018

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