Will Europe Stand up for Its Artists?

Another heavily coordinated attack of anti-copyright spam and robo-messaging aims to scare lawmakers from protecting artists.

(Image courtesy me and my little camera.)

by John Degen

In early July 2018, in the face of a tsunami of highly questionable “protest” linked to influential and moneyed Silicon Valley concerns, members of the European Parliament declined to pass a much-needed Copyright Directive. Instead, they postponed any decision on copyright until mid-September when the bill will come again before the entire plenary for consideration, debate, and a new vote.

Serious questions have been raised about July’s online protests, specifically about the extent to which the messaging was actually a reflection of European voices — or human voices for that matter — and the extent to which they show any real understanding of the issues before Parliament. As with attempts to pass laws requiring greater tech accountability in other territories (notably SOPA/PIPA in the US, which saw tech giants threaten blackouts to scare consumers into engaging) European lawmaker offices were inundated with phone calls from non-constituents, automated e-mail messages, and robotic twitter spamming. One MEP has reported receiving upwards of 40,000 automated messages in the days before the July vote.

These messages attempted to spread panic about the proposed law, claiming it would somehow break the internet, automate censorship, and squash everyone’s freedom to enjoy the fruits of the information age. They leaned heavily on the pseudo-populist notion that everything online should be free and unregulated, which also just happens to be a business model that’s been the making of a small number of super-billionaires in Silicon Valley.

Two sections within the directive drew the most fire. Article 11 aims to give publishers more control and potential revenue when the content they’ve invested in is used by aggregators and republishers like Google and Facebook. And Article 13 increases platform responsibility for copyrighted content. These are simple, long-overdue fixes to a severely tilted playing field that has seen tech giants rake almost all the profit from online content, while avoiding responsibility for its proper shepherding.

Articles 11 and 13 appear within a section in the Directive sub-titled Measures to Achieve a Well Functioning Marketplace for Copyright. That’s really all you need to know about the motivations behind the cyber-turfing campaigns and their manufactured panic. It’s not a coincidence that the promise of a well-functioning marketplace greatly concerns those monopolies that now dominate a very poorly-functioning marketplace.

Panic Sells

The disingenuous anti-copyright campaigns have been effective, because panic sells. Julia Reda, the German Pirate Party’s only sitting MEP, whips up her small base by warning of the rise of censorship machines, and claims licenses for news snippets on Google would somehow help the spread of fake news. These don’t even have to be true outcomes (and they aren’t — neither of the targeted Articles in the Directive propose anything like what Reda is shouting about), because they’re sexy and they attract eyeballs online. They’ve even managed to suck in mainstream media here and there. The UK’s Independent ran this headline ahead of the July vote:

EU committee approves new rules that could ‘destroy the internet as we know it.’

Most of the high-drama messaging about so-called “censorship-machines,’ “link taxes” and internet destruction came from individuals (like Reda) long dedicated to fatally weakening copyright law, and organizations with very close ties to Silicon Valley — many of whom in fact count Google and other tech giants as major sponsors of their work. It would seem Silicon Valley is more than happy to spend whatever it needs to, and to use as many astroturf proxies as necessary to make sure governments back down on internet regulation and payment for content.

Read What the Words Actually Say

Of course, a simple reading of the actual proposals in the Copyright Directive show none of the panic to be anywhere near warranted. The Directive is a benign and long-overdue attempt to re-level the online playing field, and to give cultural professionals the opportunity to protect and profit from their own work in a balanced marketplace for online content.

Will it require the reigning tech oligarchy to loosen its grip on the internet profit stream? Yes. Will it make them responsible for operating in a reasonable manner in order to safeguard protected creative content? Absolutely. These are good things. The very same bad outcomes pirate parties and so called “open” activists yell and scream about — corporate monopolies filtering content and owning the internet — have already happened. We all know about the filter bubbles and targeted search results created by Google and Facebook algorithms. Regulations like Article 11 and Article 13 would actually help to claw back some control for regular people in the face of algorithmic domination.

Yes, tech billionaire freedom from regulation will be affected by Europe’s Copyright Directive should it pass unamended (as it should). It might cost them a percentage or two in their profit lines. I’ll pause here briefly for you, dear reader, to feel sorry for them.

But consumers and users of the internet should not feel one blip of difference in their online experience — unless they somehow notice that their favourite artists are suddenly happier and better fed, and are then inspired to become artists themselves.

Ignore the Bots

It’s widely expected that similar cyber turfing will take place in the days leading up to the next legislative window for this important artists’ rights measure. And, clearly, if the anti-copyright forces want to win this next fight they’ll have to lean on fake activism, because any real-world activism they attempt leads to pretty embarrassing results. A recent series of protests in major European cities, aimed at encouraging a populist uprising, looked more like several tiny flag-waving clubs out for an afternoon.

(Thanks to Robert Levine for noting just how poor a showing anti-copyright protests managed.)

Hopefully this time Europe’s lawmakers will not be caught off-guard by what has become standard tech sector fear-mongering and anti-democratic disruption. I have a few key messages for the European Parliament as they head toward the September vote on copyright.

  1. Trust the actual language in the Directive; not how avowed anti-copyright activists interpret that language.
  2. Disregard all automated protest.
  3. Give your cultural entrepreneurs and workers a chance to share in the profit of digital delivery.
  4. Stand strong for artists.

Meanwhile, in Canada

Europe is certainly not the only territory that needs to be on guard against fake activism around copyright. Canada’s ongoing Statutory Review of the Copyright Act has already been targeted by at least one automated messaging campaign coming from an organization that has been rather convincingly accused of spamming Europe’s debate. OpenMedia.org has launched a benign-sounding Let’s Talk Copyright campaign, which aims to get consumers to write template notes to lawmakers protesting potential improvements to artist protections under the Copyright Act.

Fair enough. Open Media is deeply entrenched in tech sector concerns (as their sponsorship page clearly indicates — search-giant Google is one of their Platinum sponsors, and former Google Canada government relations exec Jacob Glick sits on their board). If they want to fight for advantage for the tech sector, let them. And there’s no doubt that’s what’s going on. Here’s a direct quote from their campaign:

Internet companies should also not be required to jump through hoops such as removing content based on complaints, just to avoid expensive lawsuits.
This not only puts an unfair burden on ISPs and online platforms to actively monitor users, but the fear of consequences for them as intermediaries could result in mass content filtering and widespread censorship.

Those poor, poor internet companies and ISPs. Imagine the burden on them if they actually had to take some responsibility for their business practices.

Let’s Talk Copyright has not had a great start in terms of its genuineness. The campaign appears to be reluctant to show its true, tech-sector colours and instead disguises itself as straight consumer advocacy. At the campaign’s launch, my attention was called* to one sample tweet:

(Thanks to the newspaper Blacklock’s Reporter, for drawing my attention to this tweet.)

Standard stuff, I suppose — railing against lobbyists as if they’re terrible creatures bent on subverting democracy. Wondering if regular internet users and content creators will also have a voice in Canada’s Copyright Review. It sure sounds like a powerless voter trying to get her voice heard against more powerful voices, doesn’t it?

Except this tweet is from Laura Tribe, who is the Executive Director of Open Media. Far from being just a regular old Internet user, she is herself a registered lobbyist who, it would appear, last sat down with Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, and his senior policy staff on May 9th of this year, right in the middle of Parliamentary hearings on the Copyright Review. Minister Bain’s department is primarily responsible for the Statutory Review of the Copyright Act. For the record, I — a registered lobbyist for authors — have never had a meeting with Minister Bains.

(Image courtesy Canada’s Lobby Registry — emphasis mine.)

Artists will continue to watch Let’s Talk Copyright to make sure it doesn’t keep sending messages from those hiding their real roles and motivations. If Canada’s lawmakers get spammed with multiple messages from single users or false identities, we’ll call out this campaign for cyber turfing.

Because we’ve seen misleading online clicktivism encouraged by anti-copyright campaigners before. It’s all pretty oily stuff. Vague and deceptive references to higher prices for consumers, censorship, “robbing” the public domain, etc. These things are, of course, NOT the result of strong copyright protection for artists, but they sure sound scary. And doesn’t “openness” and “fairness” sound so much nicer?

Back in 2008, a prominent anti-copyright scholar in Canada created the Fair Copyright for Canada Facebook group. He did so to encourage a campaign against potential legislation that might have come out of Canada’s ongoing round of copyright reform. The group’s messaging didn’t really spell out in detail what it wanted or even how it defined “fairness.” It simply assumed the mantle of “fair.”

Eventually, some 100,000 people clicked that they were in favour of fairness. Facebook was relatively new then, and seemed a reliable platform for expressing political views (oh, how much we’ve learned). This naive army of the apparently fair-minded was then referenced again and again to influence the legislative deliberations. Lawmakers were confronted with the idea that 100,000 voters were actively engaged on one side of an issue, when in fact all they’d done is click-agree that “fairness” was a good thing. I clicked for fairness — and I sure as hell did not believe what this scholar was telling politicians I believed.

If you search for the Fair Copyright group today, you’ll find a stale Facebook stream last updated in 2012. It has about 4400 people “following” it. This measly remnant of the original 100,000 has been following nothing new for about 6 years.

That a disingenuously manufactured dead link managed to steer Canada away from meaningful protection for artists is a national disgrace.

Europe — don’t let false online activism do the same to you.


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