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EU Parliament approves controversial copyright reform

March 26, 2019

Lawmakers have backed a preliminary deal on a controversial new EU copyright law, which will force the likes of Google and YouTube to pay publishers for using their work. Critics fear for the freedom of the internet.

Demonstrators in Berlin protest the planned EU copyright reform
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

The European Parliament on Tuesday voted to approve a controversial new copyright law that hands more power to news publishers and record companies.

The deal brings measures making platforms such as YouTube and Facebook liable for copyrighted material on their sites one step closer to conclusion.

What is the reform?

The draft law, which passed with 348 votes in favor, 274 against and 36 abstentions, means:

  • Social media platforms would have to ensure uploaded content is not in breach of copyright rules.
  • Companies will need licensing agreements with rights holders such as musicians, performers and authors to use their content.
  • The likes of Google News would have to pay publishers for press snippets shown in search results.
  • Nonprofits and encyclopedias such as Wikipedia will still be able to use data for research and educational purposes.
  • Fledgling companies with an annual turnover below €10 million ($11.3 million) are exempt.

'Governance by shitstorm'

German MEP Axel Voss, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party, said the reform "will not lead to censorship" but rather "create legal certainty on the use of copyright-protected material." 

Voss accused big tech of "governance by shitstorm," by disseminating disinformation and using money to influence public opinion.

Julia Reda of the German Pirate Party said the law would "undermine an entire generation's trust in politics."

European consumer organization BEUC also opposed the reform. "We fully support the aim of ensuring fair remuneration for creators, but this should not happen to the detriment of consumers," said Monique Goyens, head of BEUC. "There is a very high risk that the new law will do more harm than good."

How did we get here? 

European copyright law dates back to 2001, and the European Court of Justice has long been calling for it to be modernized in line with the digital era. EU officials are aware of the fact that a lot of copyrighted material ends up online without the original owners being fairly remunerated.

Why it is controversial

Tuesday's vote was the culmination of two years of bitter debate. Tech giants, which make huge profits from advertising on content they host, and supporters of a free internet opposed the reform. Critics fear this will lead to the installation of "upload filters." Publishers and artists were in favor, as they sought a better return on the content they produce.

Read more: German Wikipedia goes offline in protest over EU copyright law

What are upload filters?

The automated software to detect the copyright-protected content is not compulsory, but likely the only method to process large amounts of data. However, upload filters have a high error rate and could catch and delete legal content. Critics argue this would be a form of online censorship that hampers freedom of speech and creativity.

Widespread protest

The run-up to the vote saw much lobbying and protest by both supporters and opponents of the law. Tens of thousands of people protested in Germany on Saturday under the slogan "Save the internet." There were similar protests in Austria, Poland and Portugal. Major Polish newspapers on Monday printed blank front pages in an appeal that MEPs adopt the reform.

What happens now?

EU member states must now formally approve the legislation. They have, however, already agreed to it in principle. 

av/rt  (AFP, dpa)

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