The Digital Single Market should enable users and innovators, and not constrain freedom

In the rather dry text of the Proposal for a DIRECTIVE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL on copyright in the Digital Single Market there lurks, behind the good intentions, an information restricting and illiberal set of proposals. The infamous Article 13. The objections of the technically informed and creative internet users were ignored last June by the majority in the European Parliament who passed the proposal by a sizable majority and the final vote on the directive is immanent.

Article 13 risks being nothing more than an act of corporate welfare; with big business standing to gain while individuals see little benefit and potential disadvantage. The argument that this legislation primarily benefits the creatives and other innovators, who produce content that is currently being shared on the internet without permission, is flawed. 

More often than not, copyright of such content is not owned by the creators themselves but large corporations, such as Universal Music Group, who then pay artists a percentage of the profits made from the copyrighted material. It should be the responsibility of these corporations to ensure that their artists are fairly remunerated for their work, and that responsibility should not be shifted unfairly onto platform providers such as Facebook or YouTube. In addition, there are wider, perhaps unintended consequences. According to cryptographer and security expert Bruce Schneier, “Aside from the harm from the provisions of Article 13, this infrastructure can be easily repurposed by government and corporations – and further entrenches ubiquitous surveillance into the fabric of the Internet.”

Despite their lobbying against it, in the long-run the established platform providers will also benefit from Article 13, as it will help consolidate their market position. The ability to ensure that copyrighted material is not being uploaded to such a platform is likely to involve substantial cost, that can only be met by large companies with access to significant resources. Article 13 will therefore act as a barrier to entry for smaller organisations who wish to compete with the ‘tech giants’. At a time when there are legitimate concerns with the amount of power these companies hold, it falls to liberals to ensure that this power is not concentrated further.

Far from protecting creativity on the internet, Article 13 poses a threat to it. It is unclear how technology used to prevent the upload of copyrighted material will successfully deduce what is copyrighted and what is ‘fair use’. It seems likely that any attempt to do this will err on the side of caution, and therefore prevent the upload of creative content that uses material fairly. The internet has proved revolutionary for many creatives and innovators, providing the ability to share work far beyond what was possible before. Article 13 threatens to cut off many from this platform, and will be detrimental to both these individuals and those who wish to enjoy their work.

The voting record of Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder cannot be faulted on this issue, but it is important to lobby more widely to ensure that the illiberal nature of the proposal is understood. It is vital that the Liberal Democrats and European Liberals more widely are seen to be standing up to the power of vested interests, and are instead on the side of creative individuals and internet users for whom this legislation, in its current guise, offers little but constraints. 

* Dr Robert Johnston is a Liberal Reform Board Member, member of the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists and Fellow of the Institute of Physics.

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  • Callum Robertson 27th Nov '18 - 12:12pm

    Really good stuff, it’s crucially important that as liberals, we challenge the EU when they get it wrong.

  • Alex Macfie 27th Nov '18 - 1:33pm

    One thing that really annoys me is in Euro elections we never talk about what our MEPs have done as liberals to shape EU legislation. It’s as if they don’t exist.

  • Callum Robertson 27th Nov '18 - 4:00pm

    Alex, couldn’t agree more we may actually get somewhere if we fought on liberal values, not just soppy anti-Toryism

  • Alex Macfie 27th Nov '18 - 4:50pm

    Callum Robertson: I don’t think we have a problem of “soppy anti-Toryism” at the moment, as is shown by the fact that the pro-Corbyn crew here keep on accusing us of being too anti-Labour.
    And our main error in the 2014 European election was that we didn’t attack the Tories enough, or at all. We concentrated our attack on UKIP, which probably had the effect of bigging them up. Our campaign in that election starred Nick Clegg with the “Party of IN” slogan. There were 3 separate problems with that campaign approach (without even getting into mistakes we made during it):
    1) Nick Clegg was not on the ballot paper. Our MEPs were, but our campaign said almost nothing about them or what they actually did to shape EU policy in a liberal direction.
    2) He was associated with the Coalition, but our MEPs were not bound by Coalition collective responsibility. Conservative and Lib Dem MEPs remained part of their respective separate party blocs (ECR and ALDE). Therefore, our MEPs remained free to advance the undiluted Lib Dem position in the EP, and Tory MEPs advanced undiluted Toryism. So rather than having our Westminster leader and DPM head the campaign, it should have been headed by our MEPs, and focused on differentiation of Lib Dems from Tories based on the records of our and their MEPs. In particular, we should have said something about the Tories’ dubious allies in the ECR group. I gather we did not campaign on the ALDE manifesto or on the ALDE candidate for President of the EP. This was a big mistake, and it made us complicit in fostering public ignorance of the role of the EP, contributing to the 2016 referendum result.
    3) Whether the UK should be in or out of the EU is a domestic issue, and MEPs legislate for the EU as a whole.

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