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In punishing tech giants, the EU has made the internet worse for everyone

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago James Ball
MEPs vote for an extension of copyright law. © EPA MEPs vote for an extension of copyright law.

The world is in the middle of a global debate on how to curb the power of the tech giants, prevent the exploitation of the world’s information ecosystem by Russia and other bad actors, and make the internet work for all of us.

Given that situation, it may seem that two motions passed by the European parliament this week are positive ones – at the last moment, they were inserted into legislation, having previously been rebuffed. Both motions are unwelcome to the tech giants, and will serve to regulate the internet – but both are wrongheaded and counterproductive, and will make the internet worse.

One is an extension of copyright law, which has been dubbed the “link tax”, a measure designed to allow publishers to require large sites to pay them a fee in order to link to them – essentially extending copyright to include the link text and snippet used by Google and similar sites that give searchers a preview of what they’re looking for.

Related: How the EU can make the internet play fair with musicians | Letters

This can be as short as two words – although the details are not fleshed out particularly well in the text – but means it will become harder to navigate the internet, and harder to create rivals to existing search engines.

The rules have attempted to make exemptions for sites such as Wikipedia – following strong opposition from the site and its founder, Jimmy Wales – although activists have expressed concerns that these won’t work.

The second law is, if anything, worse. This one has been referred to as a “meme ban”, but is more accurately referred to as an upload filter – a requirement for major sites and social networks to create a database of copyrighted content, against which any new upload of text, images, audio or video would be checked.

EU copyright law already has weaker exemptions for fair use and parody than its US counterpart, and so the extension of these filters – simpler versions of which already exist on YouTube – will serve to restrict lots of content on the internet, potentially including gifs and memes.

The filter will also lead to many more invalid copyright claims succeeding – just this week, the noted British pianist James Rhodes battled a totally invalid automated copyright takedown from Sony Music Entertainment, which stated (falsely) that it owned copyright to a recording Rhodes uploaded of himself playing Bach, which is out of copyright.

Rhodes appealed against the ruling, only to be rejected, eventually securing a reversal only thanks to his considerable public profile. Such incorrect rulings could become an even more common occurrence – especially as the new system contains no penalties for making false or incorrect claims. This could allow for widespread exploitation of the system as a new strain of denial-of-service attacks by online mobs, to get content people dislike taken down with a barrage of fake claims.

Additionally, building these pre-filters will be time-consuming and expensive – meaning that they will serve to entrench existing social networks in their positions of power and make it harder for new competitors – perhaps with better business models not based on data harvesting – to appear.

The new rules will create many losers but few winners; there will be very little real benefit to most people working in creative industries. The drive to introduce them has come primarily from EU publishers – most notably Axel Springer – which have long been determined to get more money out of Google and other tech giants.

Publishers need to get over this fixation. Newspapers and news publishers have lost huge amounts of their revenue – but they need to accept that they’ve lost a lot of this fairly. Once, a newspaper was the best place to look for a new job, new properties in the area, or even a date. That’s no longer the case: bespoke job search, property search and online dating sites are quite simply better than what came before. It’s not unfair that people don’t place those adverts in papers any more.

We need a conversation about how we fund quality journalism, and how we make sure tech giants take proper responsibility for their actions, and pay the right contribution to the societies they function within. Tinkering with copyright law is not the way to get that done.

• James Ball is a former Guardian special projects editor, and the author of Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World

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