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EU parliament approves copyright law in blow to big tech

  • Published at 10:57 pm September 12th, 2018
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Members of the European Parliament take part in a vote on the situation in Hungary during a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Wednesday, September 12, 2018 REUTERS

It also slightly watered down a proposal for so-called upload filters that will make platforms -- such as YouTube or Facebook -- liable for copyright breaches and force them to automatically delete content by violators

The European Parliament yesterday approved a controversial EU copyright law that hands more power to news and record companies against internet giants like Google and Facebook. 

Backing the draft were traditional media, in urgent search of income at a time when web users shun newspapers and television and advertising revenue is siphoned away by online platforms.

The dramatic vote in the French city of Strasbourg confirmed the European Union as Silicon Valley's most powerful critic and follows anti-trust decisions that have cost Google and Apple billions.

Europe is also leading the political charge on protecting data privacy, and just ahead of the copyright vote warned web firms it could hold them responsible for terrorist propaganda.

European lawmakers were sharply divided on the copyright issue, with both sides engaging in one of the biggest rounds of lobbying that the EU has ever seen.

But, despite uncertainty ahead of the vote, MEPs meeting in Strasbourg ended up passing the draft law with 438 votes in favour, 226 against, and 39 abstentions.

The text MEPs settled on compromised on some of the ways news organizations will charge companies for links to content, with platforms free to use "a few words" of text, according to an amendment.

It also slightly watered down a proposal for so-called upload filters that will make platforms -- such as YouTube or Facebook -- liable for copyright breaches and force them to automatically delete content by violators.

EU commissioners Andrus Ansip and Mariya Gabriel, who proposed the reform, dubbed the vote "a strong and positive signal and an essential step to achieving our common objective of modernising the copyright rules in the European Union."

'Great step forward'

French President Emmanuel Macron, who firmly backed the reform, hailed "a great step forward for Europe".

"I am proud that France has been at the forefront of this fight," he added on his Twitter account.

The draft had been fiercely resisted by US tech giants as well as online freedom activists, with some campaigners warning it could spell the end of viral "memes" or jokes.

They also fear that automatic filters to prevent users sharing content subject to copyright could be misused to censor political messages or other forms of free expression. 

MEPs can now start negotiations with the European Council representing the 28 member states which had already reached a compromise on the issue in May. 

These closed-door discussions, which also include the European Commission, are known in EU jargon as "trilogues" and can take several months before any compromise is put to a fresh vote. 

Proponents of the reform would like a law before the European elections in May 2019, when many fear an influx of eurosceptic MEPs with little use for the measure. 

The bitter lobbying battle was over two parts of the planned law.

The first and most contentious was Article 13, which would make platforms like Google-owned YouTube legally liable if their users share copyrighted material, to prevent content producers being ripped off.

Critics say the change will lead in effect to blanket censorship of platforms that have become an online hub for creativity as well as the prime source of entertainment -- at the expense of TV -- for younger generations.

"Upload filters or anything else that restricts this will stop artists from making and creating the future," said former Fugees star Wyclef Jean on Tuesday in Strasbourg.

The Haitian star was one of several celebrities that waded into the debate, including Paul Mc Cartney who pleaded for the reform in a letter to MEPs in July.

The second key disputed provision was Article 11. This would create a so-called "neighbouring right", meaning that newspapers, magazines, and news agencies would receive a fee when web services link to their stories.

Julia Reda, an MEP that led the fight against the law, said the adoption of Article 11 was "catastrophic", calling it a "link tax".

"Parliament has failed to listen to citizens and expert concerns," she said.