Catherine Stihler: internet freedoms must be protected

Written by Catherine Stihler MEP on 10 September 2018 in Comment

The vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Consumer Protection on how new proposals on copyright laws may have unintended consequences

Catherine Stihler MEP - European Parliament

Amid the vile rhetoric of Boris Johnson, the unravelling of the Chequers deal, and the continued inability of the Labour leadership to see sense on Brexit, MEPs are getting on with the job of standing up for European consumers.

In nearly 20 years in the European Parliament, I have witnessed major reforms that have transformed the consumer landscape. Most of these have delivered positive change, such as lower credit card fees, clearer labelling on food products, and the abolition of mobile phone roaming charges.

But tomorrow the European Parliament will meet in Strasbourg to debate proposals to reform copyright law that I fear will have a detrimental impact on consumer rights.

Opinion is sharply divided, including within political parties. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but I do know that I will continue the fight to put consumers first, before I lose my vote next March as a result of Brexit.

As vice-chair of the committee which oversees consumer protection, this issue has dominated my work for months.

There hasn’t been a great deal of media focus, mainly because the topic can sound quite dull - and is so complicated - that it’s hard to summarise the impact. But I’ll try to do that here.

Ultimately, the proposals to protect copyright owners are so blunt and restrictive that they could have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression. Rather than finding the right balance for the new digital age, they risk becoming a crackdown on consumer rights. Or even more succinctly: they could break the internet.

The background to this is that, in 2016, the European Commission recognised that fast technological developments have produced radical changes in the way that copyright-protected works are created, produced and distributed. There was a clear need for reform.

As a result, we have a proposal for a ‘Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Copyright in the Digital Single Market’, which was supposed to simplify licensing practices, ensure wider access to content for consumers and protect authors’ and performers’ contracts and remuneration.

There is broad consensus that we should protect the work of artists.

But I agree with experts that Article 13 of the proposal goes too far, and could dramatically restrict the internet freedoms of consumers.

It is likely to lead to the use of ‘filtering’ by global websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Google.

Blunt, error-prone and hypersensitive algorithms could be introduced, designed to ‘play it safe’ and remove anything that could pose a risk to the online platform. As it is the platform which is liable for any copyright breach, these giant firms are not going to take chances.

There are many legitimate uses of copyright content that filtering technologies are simply not advanced enough to accommodate. As a result, there is automatic removal of content.

This summer, an online video of a seven-year-old boy celebrating footage of a Harry Kane World Cup goal was removed – the kind of action that could become commonplace.

Memes and GIFs also face being removed because the uploader doesn’t own the original photo.

When the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, raises concerns then we all have a duty to listen – not to mention the fact that around 1million Europeans have signed a petition demanding we ‘save the internet’.

It’s important, also, to recognise that Brexit will have no impact on how these Europe-wide websites operate.

There is another Article that I have concerns about - Article 11. If approved, it will give press publishers exclusive rights over reproduction and the availability to the public for digital use.

I want to protect what some call the ‘mainstream media’ – we need it more than ever today to combat the wild conspiracy theories that emanate from the fringes of social media. Just look at the claims of an MI5 plot to bring down Alex Salmond for a recent example.

But I fear an additional layer of copyright legislation could help spread ‘fake news’, rather than tackle it.

A large portion of news providers on the internet are financed by page impressions and the resulting advertising income, which is generated by people visiting their site via external links. If an online platform is not willing to pay the licensing fees, those page views don’t happen.

When similar copyright rules were introduced in Spain, traffic to websites of small and medium sized news publishers fell by up to 30 per cent, impacting on local journalists, and Google News largely withdrew from the market.

I know that giant publishers are in favour of Article 11, and I have listened to their arguments. But I have yet to be convinced that journalism – and the reporters who bring us the news - will benefit in any way.

This week, MEPs must give this directive the full debate necessary to achieve broad support.

We need to safeguard and stimulate our creative industries, and that means all content cannot simply be available for free. But we cannot go so far in the opposite direction that we erode the fundamental rights of users.

We need to strike the right balance, and that is what I will be fighting for in Strasbourg.

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