On Wednesday, European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs voted to essentially make memes illegal. The decision came as part of the approval process for the innocuously named “Article 13,” which would require larger sites to scan all user uploads using content recognition technology in an attempt to flag any and all remotely copyrighted material in photos, text, music, videos, and more. Meaning memes using stills from copyrighted films could be auto-blocked, along with remixes of viral videos, and basically anything that’s popular on live-streaming sites like Twitch.
Article 13 also names code as an obvious genre of copyrighted content, which could cause the open source software community to collapse under immense legal pressure. Any content containing audio, software, or the written word also falls under the article’s purview. “Requiring code-hosting platforms to scan and automatically remove content could drastically impact software developers when their dependencies are removed due to false positives,” wrote Github in a blog on the matter.
Similar content recognition technology is already in play on YouTube, Soundcloud, and Google Drive, which each use automated tools to check user-uploaded content against a host of prohibited files and instantly issue a block or takedown order if a match is made. However, the implementation of Article 13 will likely raise the barrier to entry for smaller organizations and companies, who don’t have the funds to invest in a robust automated filtering system.
The mere existence of Article 13 stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how both the internet and copyright protections were intended to work. Copyrights were not designed to encase works in a stagnant bubble — only available to those with the money and knowledge to properly gain access to it — but rather to reward innovation and foster healthy competition. The manner by which copyrighted works are typically used online is a prime example of this. Memes, remixes, open source collaborations — could technically infringe upon a copyright in some form or fashion (especially in Europe, which lacks fair use protections), yet rarely in a way that genuinely attracts the ire of the original creator. Moreover, copyright is, generally speaking, broadly interpretable, and certain remixes or format changes require the type of nuanced eye than no automated system could be expected to reasonably apply.
Though Article 13 only applies to Europe, the internet is borderless, so it seems likely that such stringent regulation would have an effect on internet users around the globe. This happened recently with the continent’s General Data Protection Regulation, which also only covers Europe but has a ripple effect worldwide as companies struggle to maintain two sets of standards for managing the data that informs their ads and marketing. Similar to the way GDPR-aided privacy concerns have leaked into American discourse, copyright mania may spread if the measure passes a vote in the wider European Parliament in July. Some European companies and platforms might also choose to turn their data over to American tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon for automated processing rather than develop their own copyright recognition software, and you know how great their track records are when it comes to moderation.
“By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 takes 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...” wrote a group of over 70 internet and digital privacy experts in a joint letter to the Parliamentary Committee. “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.”