Europe Forces an Internet Copyright Confrontation

And now, a tale of two Internets.

The first Internet is the one we’re likely the most familiar with. Let’s call it the Open Web. The Open Web is a freewheeling place where billionaires are born and where ideas and images travel the globe freely, sparking innovation and rebellion and pushing society toward greater openness. It’s an Internet where social media empowers users to challenge powerful institutions and to act as a globally crowd-sourced fourth estate, documenting, organizing and mobilizing various communities far more efficiently and effectively than ever before. It’s an Internet where the riches of the world’s cultural output—its images, films, music and words—are accessible as never before. And, as importantly, it’s a world where the barriers contributing to that culture have never been lower. It’s an Internet without gatekeepers and an ethos that encourages users and companies to act first and beg for contrition later.

The second Internet, let’s call it the Wild Web, is a darker place. The Wild Web is one where the creative talents that power the world’s cultural engines are constantly preyed upon. This is an Internet where creative work is routinely stolen, altered and passed off (or sold) as the work of others. Where the Open Web champions the free flow of ideas, denizens of the Wild Web see a world where powerful companies grow rich off of the free labor of others—even when that labor is, to the laborer, wholly unwitting (like submitting a photo and status update to Facebook). In the Wild Web, crowd-sourced journalism and activism starves more established outlets of funds, floods the system with misinformation, and is easily manipulated by nefarious actors—whether they’re individuals, companies or nation states.

There is just one Internet, of course. But it’s safe to say that regulators on either side of the Atlantic have embraced rival interpretations of just what the Internet is.

For American regulators, it’s the Open Web and their overriding imperative is to keep it as open and as lightly regulated as possible. For European Union regulators, the dangers of the Wild Web seem to pose a more urgent threat and therefore require stricter control.

The EU’s first salvo at taming the Wild Web was the General Data Protection Regulation, which aimed to strengthen privacy laws and impose tougher guidelines on the acquisition and leveraging of a user’s personal information. The next act is a September vote on a revised set of copyright regulations that would govern how Internet companies handle content.

The original EU copyright bill went down to defeat in a July 5th vote of the European Parliament. The sticking point was a pair of articles in the bill that would require Internet companies to use content filters to ensure that anything uploaded by a user wasn’t infringing on the work of another and a so-called “Link Tax” that would require companies to pay a license anytime they linked to the work of a news organization.

Opponents of the bill, including high profile names such as Tim Berners-Lee, claimed it would put the Internet’s thriving remix culture at risk and impose unnecessary hardships on smaller firms that couldn’t afford to install content filters or perpetually pay licensing fees for simply linking out to a news site. Proponents, such as former Beatle Paul McCartney, claimed it was a necessary restorative that would give artists a chance to recoup revenue lost when Internet giants like Google host infringed copyrighted material.

European regulators (and lobbyists) will spend the summer re-litigating the issue in advance of the next vote, but America’s tech companies will be watching closely. Companies like Facebook and Google that play host to terabytes of user-generated content have a fraught relationship with copyrighted material, but they’re not alone. Many Web users have a poor understanding of what constitutes copyrighted material and when and how such material can be used. The EU debate, if nothing else, could serve as a clarifying conversation on copyright.