Article 13, a potential internet disaster

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Credit: CC BY 2.0

Ree Rolph
Writer

EU legislation threatens to create major unintended problems for the everyday internet user

If you’ve been on YouTube recently, you’ve likely been presented with a pop-up message decrying Article 13, a proposed EU directive that Google claims will force them to block millions of videos, and prevent EU users from uploading new videos unless they can prove that they own every element contained within. This, unsurprisingly, is hyperbole. However, they have a good reason to be worried; business is booming, and many groups want a piece of their pie.

This particular piece of legislation is being pushed by copyright-holders – mostly old media music and film companies – to shift the responsibility for copyright infringement onto media hosting companies. Rather than having to manually respond to take-down notices, the content must be filtered before being uploaded, otherwise legal action can be taken against the host. Probably. The wording is vague, and the fine detail will be worked out by individual EU countries as they incorporate it into their legal systems.

The reason Google oppose this should be pretty clear; very few companies want to risk more litigation. However, this could arguably end up being quite good for them – the sort of monitoring required to filter a site with so much traffic is something few but Google can afford. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that this could help to cement YouTube’s position at the top, as nobody else could afford to comply with the legislation. Of all the issues with the legislation, this seems the least likely to manifest. The cost of hosting all that video is prohibitive to any new start-up anyway – Article 13 would just the cherry on top.

So does any of this actually affect you? Almost certainly, but it’s hard to know how much. This legislation isn’t being introduced for people who use YouTube, or even for the people whose content is being re-uploaded by pirates. This is here for the conglomerates who can see a few extra pennies they can squeeze out of modern society. If people’s culture, communities, or livelihoods get in the way then so be it.

This is a fundamental danger of internet legislation, it often has wide-ranging international consequences beyond the scope of the original law. For a recent example, look at the SESTA/FOSTA bill in the states, which claimed to aim at helping sex workers, and instead wiped out many places where they could safely trade, along with many LGBTQ communities, and the entire adult section of tumblr. This law similarly threatened lawsuits against tech companies, and so the tech companies preemptively wiped out any community that could feasibly host that content.

A similar book-burning may well be the result of Article 13. Even if we are leaving the EU, this will fall well within the transition period, and will have wide ranging effects across the western web; there are few hard borders on the internet. The change won’t be dramatic, it won’t be sudden, but the web will just start to get worse, bit by bit, to enrich a privileged few. In many ways, it’s a further reflection of the current political climate.

However, there could be another unintended consequence. Decentralised platforms such as Mastodon have gained notoriety in recent years. These allow hosting to be distributed over many computers, without a centralised server to target or organisational structure to sue. Perhaps it’s optimistic, but as old and new media grapple over their share of the pie, a new web could take shape in the rubble. The long dead promise of a Wild West Web could live again.