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Killing memes and net neutrality - the fight for the internet heats up

The original photo of the G7 summit tweeted by the German negotiating team quickly found favour on Twitter. Photo (meme)  / @BelkissObadia

Some days it seems like the only thing keeping me on Twitter is the reliably steady flow of memes delivering hilarity amidst the trolling and virtue-signalling of celebrities, journalists and anonymous lurkers.

Most recently it was the Photo-shopped image of President Trump at the G7 Summit in Quebec - the one with the petulant president sitting there, arms folded, as Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Shinzō Abe and other world leaders loom over him like unimpressed parents.

There was Trump in his high chair with a bowl of spaghetti over his head, Trump clutching a teddy bear, Trump and his powerful allies now in a renaissance painting on an art gallery wall. It became an instant classic as far as memes go. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the Trump-Kim summit.

Copying verboten

The G7 photo was apparently released by the office of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which is meaningful in itself. I’m sure Merkel had a private chuckle at what the internet produced. But what if she was actually less than impressed, worried about diplomatic fallout, and had the power to have all of those memes removed from the internet? After all, the German Government owns the copyright for it.

That sounds a lot like censorship. But that’s exactly what digital rights groups claim could technically be possible under Article 13 of the Copyright Directive, a piece of European Union legislation that will be voted on later this month in the European Parliament.

The Copyright Directive has been around since 2001 and applies across the EU’s 28 member states. But an update to it seeks to better protect the rights of copyright holders in the digital age, where a quick cut and paste can see an image or slab of text distributed around the internet in mere seconds.

The EU mainly wants to help its media companies and publishers regain their footing as big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter disseminate their content via tweets, Facebook newsfeed updates and Youtube videos, while generating advertising revenue for themselves as they do it.

Article 13 would require “information society service providers” which host a lot of content uploaded by their users, to “take measures to ensure the functioning of agreements concluded with rights holders for the use of their works” or “prevent the availability on their services of works or other subject-matter identified by rightholders”. Those prevention measures could include “content recognition technologies”.

In plain language, that means the likes of Twitter and Facebook would have to filter out all the stuff posted on their platforms that included copyrighted material - unless prior permission was given by the rights holder for it to be used.

Already filtering

The Big Tech companies are already doing some level of filtering - to remove explicit and illegal material, such as child pornography or terrorist propaganda. I’ve been to the Microsoft lab in Seattle where they search for this type of content and they are doing a laudable job, albeit, without true regulatory oversight.

But Youtube already does something more akin to what Article 13 has in mind, as a condition of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act - a US piece of legislation primarily aimed at protecting US music and movie publishers. 

So much content is uploaded to Youtube illegally, in breach of copyright, Google had to come up with a DMCA-compliant way to identify content quickly - say a music video of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and flag it for removal.

Youtube’s Content ID system identifies and strips content from the video sharing platform tens of thousands of times a day, but has been flagged numerous times for its overzealous content blocking. Article 13 would see those types of systems applied to the internet in general, so that copyrighted material would be identified and blocked if it is published by sources that don’t have permission from the rights holders.

The transfer of wealth from traditional publishers to the Silicon Valley giants is a legitimate issue challenging the sustainability of the media and the health of democracy, but the Copyright Directive threatens to make the sharing of mashed-up snippets of content incorporating copyrighted material, a prohibited act.

Unaccountable black boxes

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has described Article 13 as “disastrously stupid”.

“These black boxes will have the unaccountable power of life or death over everything Europeans say to each other online. They'll ingest everything we say to each other -- likely sending it to one of the giant American tech companies that specialise in this kind of filtering -- and render a judgment,” writes the sci-fi novelist and BoingBoing editor, Cory Doctorow, who was in New Zealand in March for the New Zealand Festival.

In applying content filters Big Tech would be tasked with policing the firehose of text, images, videos and sounds blasting out across the internet every day. Article 13 requires “complaints and redress mechanisms” for rights holders and users to enforce and question content-vetting decisions. That would be a complete nightmare to facilitate. It would cost a lot of money to run the servers to scan all of that content and the administration of the system.

Even if there is some leeway for copyrighted material to be incorporated into satirical content such as memes, will the content-vetting algorithms perform well enough to make the right call? I doubt it.

“The days of communicating through gifs and memes, listening to our favourite remixes online or sharing videos of our friends singing at karaoke might be coming to an end,” warns the Brussels-based not for profit, Copyright for Creativity.

“Online platforms will be required to implement complex and expensive filtering systems and will be held liable for copyright infringement, potentially incurring fines that threaten their economic viability.”

Shades of GDP

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says Article 13 threatens to “wreck the Internet itself”. It notes that there are no proposed penalties for people or companies who abuse the system, making illegitimate claims to copyrighted material and asking it to be blocked on sharing networks.

“It will be a lot easier to make these false claims that it will be to figure out which of the hundreds of millions of copyrighted claims are real and which ones are pranks or hoaxes or censorship attempts,” the EFF points out.

If all of that sounds alarmist, consider that other piece of EU legislation, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect last month and has sweeping powers to prosecute and fine companies that don’t take the data privacy of EU citizens seriously.

That complicated set of rules has created a similar headache for companies attempting to become compliant. But they are hustling to do so because of the massive fines they could face if in breach of the GDPR, as I outlined on NOTED a couple of weeks ago.

As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, tech companies have been way too cavalier with our data privacy to date, so there is merit in tightening things up.

The GDPR has its merits. Article 13 is much more problematic. It could kill the open culture of the web. It could be manipulated to censor the web. It certainly won’t save the media, that’s what the equally flawed Article 11 is for, creating a “link tax” where the sharing of small snippets of content could become subject to copyright licensing fees.

What the Europeans are doing affects all of us because the internet has no boundaries. Sure, another bizarre law the EU has passed grants Europeans the “right to be forgotten” by internet search engines that index inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive content about them. The results are stripped from Google’s European search sites, but are still visible in other countries.

Trying to block memes in Austria and Spain but have them being retweeted and liked in the US and here in New Zealand, isn’t really going to work. So there’s a good chance, as has been the case with the GDPR, that the content filtering will go global.

The looming 20 June vote by the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament isn’t the last stop on the regulatory conveyor belt for the Copyright Directive. It will then go to the entire Parliament for a plenary vote. But it will be hard to stop it after that, which is why digital rights groups and members of the European Parliament itself, mobilise to oppose it.

The end of net neutrality

All of that seems very distant from us. But the Article 13 debate raged in Europe as the US just yesterday confirmed the repeal of internet neutrality laws introduced in 2015 by the Obama administration.

It means that US internet providers now have the ability to differentiate the experience their users have online, by creating fast and slow lanes on the internet based on how much customers are willing to pay. Now, all of that is legal - as long as the ISPs advertise the fact that they are doing so.

The big ISPs, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have said they won’t do that, but here’s why they will if they can get away with it - they hate the fact that Facebook, Google and Netflix have become powerful on the internet backbones they’ve created, without having to pay for the privilege of using them.

The capitalist impulse and regulatory free ride mean it will be a slippery slope towards a two-tier internet which will have implications for us too when it comes to how much we pay to access services like Netflix and Gmail and how these services perform in future.

The modernisation of regulation around the world in the name of progress is also threatening to undermine the things we love the most about the internet. We need to watch what is going on from our distant vantage point and make our views heard as well, before the decisions made in the US and Europe have irreversible implications for us as well.