Business / Tech

Tech firms may have to filter user uploads under new EU rules

Bloomberg, Reuters

Europe is proposing to do away with key legal protections enjoyed by Google, Facebook and other internet giants, a shift that could lead web platforms to block certain posts by users.

New European Union rules, backed by European lawmakers in a vote Wednesday, could force web services to actively prevent copyrighted content from appearing on their platforms if rights holders don’t grant them a license.

The legislation would also grant publishers new legal rights to seek compensation for snippets of articles that Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other news aggregators post online.

“This is an exceptional day for European news media,” said Wout van Wijk, executive director of News Media Europe, a publishers’ association. “We look forward to enjoying a copyright regime that is fit for the digital age.”

When users upload content to social networks, video websites and other digital platforms, the companies running those services aren’t responsible for checking if the material violates copyright. The new rules would change that, and are part of a broader backlash against technology companies.

As the world wakes up to the power and influence of major internet players like Google and Facebook, regulators and policymakers are beginning to question previously hands-off approaches to the sector. In March, the EU issued new guidelines, giving internet companies an hour to wipe Islamic State videos and other terrorist content from their services. U.S. President Donald Trump signed a law in April making websites liable if they knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. And Europe’s tough new data privacy regulation kicked in last month.

The vote Wednesday by the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee will help set the institution’s position on the legislation, ahead of final negotiations with the European Commission and EU member states, before it becomes law.

The remaining members of European Parliament still need to formally sign off on the parliament’s position on the law, which has been the subject of fierce lobbying, pitting tech behemoths and internet activists against publishers, authors and artists.

“These measures would seriously undermine basic internet freedoms,” said Julia Reda, a German member of the European Parliament opposed to parts of the copyright rules, after the vote. “We can still overturn this result and preserve the free internet.”

Copyright holders for music, images and other content believe rules are needed to negotiate fair compensation for their work from web companies like Google and Facebook, which they say indirectly profit from displaying their content and running advertising.

“Those platforms are really monopolizing the market for access to cultural content on the internet,” said Veronique Desbrosses, general manager for GESAC, a European umbrella association of author groups. Big tech companies aren’t paying creators fairly, she added.

Current EU rules protect platforms from legal responsibility for what appears on their websites until they are notified, such as when users flag terrorist propaganda. The companies are then required to take illegal content down.

For copyrighted works, services like Google’s YouTube already use technology that scans and identifies protected content that’s uploaded. Copyright owners can then either have the material taken down or choose to make money from it by running ads and sharing revenue with the user.

Google’s system, known as Content ID, has helped the company pay about €2 billion ($2.3 billion) to copyright holders in recent years, Marco Pancini, director of EU public policy at Google, said in remarks to the European Parliament Tuesday.

Under the new rules, Facebook and Google would be required to prevent certain works from showing up on their platforms in the first place, should rights holders demand it. That will create legal headaches for the companies and likely require them to get licenses for the material.

“If we do the right things, we put in place our content ID systems and things like that, I don’t think you need to regulate,” Richard Allan, vice president for policy solutions at Facebook, told European lawmakers this week.

Internet activists are concerned that the rules could restrict expression online. Sharing of memes could be caught up in the new rules because they are often based on copyrighted images, they noted as an example.

The European Commission first proposed the legislation in 2016. Member states in May backed the commission proposal with some amendments, including lowering the duration of the publishers’ legal rights to one year from 20. The parliament on Wednesday voted to give publishers the rights for five years.

The lobbying group CCIA, whose members include Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon and Netflix, criticized lawmakers for ignoring pleas from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, net neutrality expert Tim Wu, internet pioneer Vint Cerf and others.

Raegan MacDonald, head of EU public policy at Mozilla, creator of the Firefox web browser, called it a sad day for the internet in Europe. “It is especially disappointing that just a few weeks after the entry into force of the GDPR — a law that made Europe a global regulatory standard-bearer — parliamentarians have approved a law that will fundamentally damage the internet in Europe, with global ramifications,” she said, referring to Europe’s new data protection law.