Do we finally have the technology to stop internet piracy for good? Publishers and content creators have long been trying to find a “secret weapon” that will win the war against digital pirates. With recent advances in machine learning and pattern-matching algorithms, is that goal now finally within reach? And perhaps a better question might be: should we use these technologies? What will be the consequences if we do?

This is not an abstract question. At the heart of the issue is the EU’s Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, which was narrowly approved by the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee on 20 June 2018. That doesn’t mean the Directive will now automatically be adopted into law; the next step is for the entire European Parliament to vote on the proposed legislation on 5 July. If that vote is unsuccessful, then the law may still be amended.

One of the most controversial elements of the Directive is Article 13, which requires online platforms to implement “effective and proportionate measures” to prevent copyright content being uploaded to their services by users. Failure to do so will potentially make the digital platform themselves liable. Critics worry that this will mean, in practice, that platforms are forced to preemptively filter content uploaded by users in order to screen out copyrighted material. This could result (according to activists) in everything from grumpy cat memes to embarrassing footage of politicians being effectively unpublishable on social media and other networks.

Curious to know more about the EU Copyright Directive? We’ve put together some facts and figures in the infographic below (click for a bigger version).What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Matej, who thinks that the EU Copyright Directive is so flawed that it essentially amounts to what he calls “censorship”. He argues all uploaded content will need to be monitored. Would that then inevitably lead to false-positives, or moderators erring on the side of caution and deleting non-infringing material?

To get a reaction, we spoke to Cory Doctorow, author, digital rights activist, and co-editor of the blog Boing Boing. What would he say to Matej’s point? Did he think the use of the word “censorship” was accurate?

The intended consequence here is to create a system where software works out whether or not something is likely to infringe copyright, and does it to the best of software’s ability, and the intended outcome of that is that we will sacrifice the principle of ‘fair dealing’ in order to allow software to do this. Because software can’t look at a picture and know that the reason it’s a partial match for another picture is because it’s a critical commentary or parody that reuses the picture in a way that’s consistent with fair dealing, or whether it’s just a slavish reproduction or an inadequate production and the reason there are differences is because there is some degradation in the copying process. And since software can’t tell the difference, it’s going to err on the side of caution. This is a rule, after all, designed to make companies prevent infringing material from ever seeing the light of day. It’s not about responding to complaints, but rather about preemptive removal. So, the intended consequence is that fair dealing is the collateral damage in the war on copyright infringement.

There’s a really significant problem with that, and that may not be obvious to people unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of copyright law. Because copyright is, at its core, a state-regulated monopoly over expression. Certain words, or images, or tunes, or other forms of expressive speech are put under monopolistic control of the people who created them. And I’m one of those creators. I like having a monopoly over my words. But I acknowledge that monopolies of expression are, by definition, dangerous to expression.

So, the parliaments of the world, since the first days of the first copyright, have always carved out or created an escape or safety valve for free expression. And that’s called ‘fair dealing’. That’s the right to do things not with the permission of the copyright holder, but without it, and even against the wishes of the copyright holder. Because, for reasons that should be obvious to everyone, giving a person who is in line for some criticism a veto over who can make that criticism is not good public policy, and will not produce robust critical views. So, that’s the intended consequence.

So, that would be the Directive doing what it’s supposed to do. By the sounds of it, however, there are also some unintended consequences that Cory Doctorow is predicting?

The unintended consequence is that these systems are not very good at making partial matches. Our software just can’t make a match and tell you to a certainty whether this is a substantive duplicate of that. And, as a consequence, a large number of materials that are not copyrighted, or whose creators wish to have them shared, or that don’t represent an infringement in some other way, will be blocked. We know that the rate of error in the best machine learning systems is in the 10-15% range, and in the median machine learning system is more like 40%. And when we’re talking about billions of tweets, and billions of Facebook updates, and hundreds of millions of videos, and billions of photos, then an error rate of even 1% would fill the Bodleian library with materials that should be allowed, that will not be allowed, and it would fill the Bodleian every day. That is the unintended, but absolutely foreseeable, consequence; when you fish with a great bit tuna net, you catch a lot of dolphins in it.

But does this really justify the label ‘censorship’? It sounds like there might be accidental false positives, but surely censorship implies intent. Or are there other knock-on effects of the Directive that Doctorow is worried about?

There is also a malicious consequence, which is again, I think, a foreseeable one, but which is in some ways different from the unintended consequence. The rule requires companies to allow for mass scale claims of copyright… and it has to be live straight away, because the last thing you’d want if you were, say, Disney, is to release a hit cartoon and then, between your release of that cartoon and the copyright filters kicking in, there’s a 72-hour window when you expect to make all of your money, during which the copyright filters aren’t working.

The intersection of a system that allows for mass uploads and that also permits no delay is a system that will be very easy to abuse. So, perhaps someone who’s just a prankster could upload all of the works of Shakespeare and put them in the database of copyrighted works under their own name, and nobody would be allowed to quote Shakespeare on any of the European servers until people who work for those companies could comb through billions of entries to locate the thousands of false ones, which is a process that might take months, or even years to unwind. Plus, the person who’s making these copyright submissions can use bots to make and replace the submissions at speed. And the companies that are sorting through the submissions have to use human intelligence to comb back through it and find the malicious ones.

But even worse, and even scarier, is the possibility that people will implement tactical censorship at specific moments in our public discourse. So, in the run-up to the Turkish elections prior to the most recent ones, high-ranking government officials closely associated with Erdoğan were recorded soliciting bribes, and videos containing that audio track were uploaded to YouTube. This prompted the country to block YouTube and to take other actions to restrict access to those videos. But, in future, if there is a specific document file, video, or other material that is incredibly relevant to a pending event like a referendum or election, people who don’t want that material to be in the public eye during a key moment could selectively lay claim to a copyright over it, and do so everywhere all at once using relatively easy-to-write bots that could seem to come from countries all over the world, that would not seem to be acting in concert. They could simply silence key materials at key moments.

We are at the beginning of the age of information warfare, and we are crafting a super-weapon that will require virtually no skill and virtually no resources to wield in the form of these censorship machines. So, I think that ‘censorship’ is the right word, for all of those reasons.

We also had a comment from Michalis, who argues that copyright is an essential motivation in the creation of innovative ideas. Can we at least agree that there needs to be some form of strong copyright protection in order to encourage creativity and support creators?

To get a response, we put Michalis’ comment to Maud Sacquet, Senior Manager of Public Policy at the Computer and Communications Industry Association. What would she say?

Balanced copyright rules are indeed key for innovation and creation. However, the proposed copyright reform is not fit for the digital age – but rather backward looking. It requires, for example, the implementation of mandatory filters for content uploaded by users on open platforms. This could create censorship on a large scale. This is why we urge MEPs to contest the proposal and to support instead balanced copyright rules which respect online rights and support Europe’s digital economy.

Next up, we had a comment from Mykolas, who takes completely the opposite approach. He says he doesn’t really believe in the idea behind copyright, and is basically able to get anything he wants for free online. What would Maud Sacquet say to him?

People are rightly frustrated with copyright’s complexity, but throwing out all incentives for creativity isn’t the solution. The best solution to piracy is a robust marketplace of competitive, legitimate alternatives and balanced copyright rules. However (and as explained above) we oppose this copyright proposal because it is neither balanced nor fit for the digital age. Content uploaded by European Internet users could be taken down on a large scale, despite being legal, because filters cannot identify copyright exceptions such as parody or quotation.

Finally, we asked Cory Doctorow what he would recommend people actually do in response to his warnings. Here’s what he had to say:

Saveyourinternet.eu is the place to go to contact your MEP, and you should contact your MEP! I know in the UK, oftentimes that means contacting a UKIP or other far-right MEP, or sometimes a Labour MEP. And, weirdly, both of them are on the wrong side of this. This is an area where I think they’re vulnerable, because you can talk to them about how their future, the future of saying things that are unpopular in the halls of power, depends on there being a diversity of places to speak. When you consolidate speech into a tiny number of hands then you end up reducing the places where these heterodox ideas can be discussed. So, that’s where I would urge you to start. I’d urge you to keep your eyes on the prize here.

There are European elections coming up [in 2019], and there is no MEP in Europe, except for maybe the Pirate Party, whose campaign is about copyright. None of them are hoping to get their job back by being a copyright campaigner. So every one of them will be willing to jettison copyright if it’s a choice between them and the continued work in the job that they’re doing now. And if we show them that they’re vulnerable on copyright, that copyright is a thing that could cost them their jobs, this is a golden opportunity to get them to back away from it.

Is copyright reform criminalising an entire generation? Will new EU copyright laws censor the internet? Or will they protect content creators and ensure they are paid fairly for their work? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

IMAGE CREDITS: (c) BigStock – Javier Brosch; PORTRAIT CREDITS: Maud Sacquet (cc) Flickr – Lisbon Council; Cory Doctorow (cc) Wikimedia – Salimfadhley
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35 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. Ingrida

    Just answer to the question: who is the LCC copyright? You’ll find out the main source of evil based on the international level

  2. Ingrida

    Just answer to the question: who is the LCC copyright? You’ll find out the main source of evil based on the international level

  3. Julia

    It is censorship. If images are used for profit, then they violate copyright laws. Memes are fun, for entertainment, satire or informative purposes. Therefore laws to filter memes is censorship. It is people’s right to express themselves freely.

  4. Michael

    The video game industry has it right. People want open digital platforms and quick easy transactions. The stores are advertising platforms for different content providers as well as providers of digital rights management and store front services.

    The dinosaurian film, print and music industries are still trying to force us into a subscription model. They are just absolutely allergic to the twenty-first century. They refuse to sell their content by the episode, by the film, by the series, by the song, or by the article or edition on an open platform in competition with other content providers. Indeed, when sites like Menéame started in this direction, rather than seeing the potential and developing them into a replacement for the moribund subscription model, creating for once a European content giant, they went after them guns blazing and foaming at the mouth and used their political and legal connections to fine them to death.

    They want to lock you into their boring proprietary service with subscriptions. We’re just not very into it, I’m afraid. Put those old fossils in the board rooms out to pasture and bring in innovative people who aren’t terrified of technology.

    • Fiona

      I think many people would prefer decent, transparent subscriptions over paying for each episode/movie individually. In my country Spotify is popular because they host most songs, they are reasonably affordable and they do not host content on a pay-per-song basis like certain other content providers do. Film industry platforms however each only host fragments of all content and that renders those subscriptions undesirable.

      In my opinion a better approach for the film industry would be for them to create one giant platform where all content is hosted with subscriptions for access to X movies/episodes a month (and the option to pay per movie/episode for people who prefer such model) and then distribute the funds among themselves based on the number of times content of a certain producer is viewed. This however means that they need to become much more cooperative with each other. People want convenient, affordable entertainment.

  5. Stef

    I love bureaucrats making laws about something they don’t understand.

    • Ivan

      It would be a mistake to think they do not understand it, they know exactly what they are doing & have a very clear objective.

    • Γιωργος

      This is literally the world the past 30years with an extreme escalation the last 10.

  6. Matt

    New copyright law is going to work only for big companies (well, like always) while small publishers will be punished by automatic reporting systems even more. Those systems already exist & send many false positives * saying hi to google dmca *. That makes many websites to loose all the traffic when someone sends a copyright infringement request.

    There is also a politics behind. Politicians, in exactly the same way as big companies do, can now take down any material they want from internet just by sending some really simple requests that can be fully automated.

    It all basically gives more opportunities to censor a good quality content over internet & take down whatever big companies/politicians want or dislike.

    It’s not only about your memes, but a free speech in general. There isn’t any.

  7. Codrin

    Didn’t believed in the EUSSR narative before, now i’m starting to have doubts …
    The internet should be a free space ! Undoubtably way more free than it is now.

  8. Ivan

    The goal of Brussels is only allow you access to content they control and if and when Article 13 is passed they will have achieved it. Just like the rejected European constitution if it fails this time they will just rename it and then force it onto you anyway. .

    Goodbye free speech, hello social engineering.

    Thank god we are leaving the antidemocratic EU. 8|

  9. Josh

    Film publishers are dumb. The issue isn’t about stealing it’s about goodwill and convenience. I’ll sit through hentai ads for a pirated film if it means I don’t have to trek all the way to a cinema or buy a physical DVD to watch it. The issue isn’t that I don’t want to or can’t pay, the issue is that they make it such a hassle to but things that it’s easier to pirate them.

    Like who torrents music anymore now Spotify exists? Who bothers to steal any film or TV show they could watch on Netflix? But if it’s something not on Netflix like Buffy the vampire slayer, a series that’s nearly 25 goddamn years old, I have to order a box set off amazon and wait 5 days for it to show up and that is not worth it.

  10. Allan

    Copy right laws are strange.. Apple claims copyright to it’s tablet design.. to me it is not copyrightable for the design actually been around for several hundred years in tablet format..
    It is called the slate tablet used to teaching children for hundreds of years..
    I don’t see how you can claim copyright on anything you do not create or write.. far to many things are copyrighted that there is no right. Corporate copy rights due to the unending life span should be limited to a maximum duration of 10 years beyond thst they become public domain.

  11. Tarquin Farquhar

    Article 13 is truly frightening!

    Free speech under threat yet again AND big business controls the agenda – same old EU!

  12. Ivan

    No but the wannabe dictators in Brussels are by enforcing their anti free speech Article 13.

    First they control what you say, then they control what you read, then they control what you think.

    The tactics of Nazism & Communism are being repeated and the foolish pro EU fanatics fall for them.

    Goodbye freedom of thought, hello EU dictatorship.

  13. Bert

    Why is this law even needed should be a question

    • Matt

      For big corporations to protect their interest. It is nothing good for citizens nor small businesses.

    • Danny

      be cause right wing patriots are better at using memes than leftist traitors

    • Klaus

      Matt “right wing”

  14. Harry

    As with most issues, they resolve themselves by what the prevalent mood is at the time. Not a simple black and white issue.

  15. Luka

    Idiotic laws, making people’s life harder, limiting free speech and net neutrality.

  16. Ole

    It would serve the dignity of this platform well to report on the actually content of the compromises that were voted through by a fair majority (14/9) in the European Parliament’s Judicial affairs committee on 20 June. The content here is promoted by Europes pirates and the large internet platforms that are categorically against regulation of the Internet.
    The text that is on the parliament agenda for tomorrow is freely available… on the Internet. Lot it up!

  17. Bernard

    It is ironic that our own supposed representatives in the European Parliament are delivering this blow against us.

  18. This law exists for corporate interests only. Not for the people. Also they exist so that the wannabe dictatorship in Brussels can persecute you and throw you in jail in case you happen to threaten their existence.

  19. Георги

    Sadly I think that only the common people will suffer from this and that the actual crimes that this law is intended to stop will go on unhindered. Actually the exactly same thing we saw with the new rules for protection of the personal data. :( Those laws need to be though over very carefully before being accepted because otherwise they open the door for things like censorship and oppression of opinions instead of actually protecting anything.

  20. Raquel

    Yes! Imagine all the memes paying for all of that

  21. Fulgence

    We’ve responsibility to work for reconciliation as european deputy is more payed than his neighbour but price for bread,location of a house, a car oneself fo both.Privileges have to go with humanity,empathy,emotions three things which never become animales,robots

  22. Björn

    It all depends on how the law are used in practise.

  23. Ivan

    That’s not what it’s role is. The reform is designed to control the narrative and what people can and cannot say & think within the EU. Pretty much the same policy as used by the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1932.

  24. Grog

    it is direct threat to freedom of expression. it will bring censorship. it must be stopped.

  25. Stef

    EU wants to censor everything that doesn’t fit its narrative…

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