A European parliament committee has voted for legislation that internet pioneers fear will turn the web into “a tool for surveillance and control”. In a key vote on a draft law to overhaul EU copyright rules, the parliament’s legal affairs committee on Wednesday voted for measures that would require the likes of Google and Microsoft to install filters to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials. The MEPs voted narrowly for the provision, despite warnings from some of the biggest names in the internet, and civil liberties campaigners, that the law would damage freedom of expression, while entrenching the power of the biggest companies and loading costs on to European startups.
The plans still have to be agreed with representatives from the EU’s 28 governments before becoming law, but the vote reduces the chances of serious changes.
Opponents of the law vowed to fight on when the legislation comes before all MEPs for a final vote.
“I will challenge this outcome and request a vote in the European parliament next month,” said the Green MEP Julia Reda, who has been leading opposition to the law. “We can still overturn this result and preserve the free internet.”
First proposed by the European commission in 2016, the law attempts to update EU copyright laws for the age of Facebook and Google, with the aim of ensuring that authors, artists and journalists are “paid fairly” for their work.
Critics fear the measures would stifle freedom of expression by curtailing internet users’ ability to share content. Some lawmakers say even memes would be affected, as users would be required to take their own meme photos and give permission for others to use them.
One of the most controversial provisions, article 13, would require platforms, such as Google and Microsoft, to install filters. It was adopted by the committee by 15 votes to 10.
Earlier in June, an open letter signed by 70 of the biggest names of the internet, including the creator of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, and the Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, argued that article 13 would take “an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users”.
“The damage that this may do to the free and open internet as we know it is hard to predict, but in our opinions could be substantial,” the letter said.
Addressed to MEPs, the internet pioneers argued that the cost would fall heavily on European tech companies, as the big platforms, which are exclusively American, could afford the costs of compliance.
Internet experts are also worried about another provision adopted on Wednesday that would force internet platforms, such as Google, to pay publishers for showing snippets of news stories. Reda argues that the “link tax” would drastically curtail internet users from sharing news stories and even holiday photos on the internet. Under the proposals, “such snippets would require licensing, including even short and purely factual headlines like ‘Angela Merkel meets Theresa May’”, she wrote ahead of the vote.
Earlier this year, a group of 169 European academics specialising in intellectual property urged MEPs to reject the “misguided” plans, which they said would “likely impede the free flow of information that is of vital importance to democracy”. Scores of academics have since added their names to the letter, which also says the proposals would be likely to harm journalists, photographers and many “non-institutional creators and producers of news”, including freelancers.
The UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, has also raised concerns about “prepublication censorship”, with automatic filters being unable to detect fair comment, satire, criticism and parody.
In a rare feat, the law has united consumer and tech lobbies in opposition.
Monique Goyens, the director general of the European Consumer Organisation, said MEPs had failed to find a solution to benefit consumers and creators. “The internet as we know it will change when platforms will need to systematically filter content that users want to upload. The internet will change from a place where consumers can enjoy sharing creations and ideas to an environment that is restricted and controlled.”
Meanwhile, Digital Europe said the “unworkable liability regime [for] content filtering will damage rather than aid the online and creative market”. Tech companies also fear the new law will fragment the EU’s online single market, because national governments would decide how “link taxes” would work in their country.
“If the main ambition of the commission and parliament was to create a non-fragmented digital single market where innovation in the creative sector can flourish, then this result is a complete failure,” said Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, the organisation’s director-general.
Axel Voss, the centre-right MEP who is steering the proposal through parliament, rejected the criticism. “No one is and no one will ever filter the internet,” he said in a statement, while defending the central idea. “These platforms make a considerable profit on the works uploaded by its users, so they can’t simply hide behind the argument that it is the users who are uploading, while the platform is making money from it.”