To meme or not to meme? Thoughts on the EU Commission’s Article 13 copyright directive | Liam O’Dell

Try to regulate the Internet, and you will get memed.

In the middle of a controversial debate around net neutrality in the United States, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai tried to win support with a cringeworthy promotional video. In addition to the strong opposition to the new plans, the video was repeatedly mocked and parodied by Internet creators around the world.

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode.

Next in line to propose new regulations on the Internet is the European Commission, who, through a new copyright directive known as Article 13, want to “[improve] the position of rightholders to negotiate and be remunerated for the exploitation of their content by online services giving access to user-uploaded content” and make sure that “authors and rightholders receive a fair share of the value that is generated by the use of their works and other subject-matter”.

The concern comes from campaign groups such as Save Your Internet, who argue that websites will have to “implement complex and expensive filtering systems and will be held liable for copyright infringement, potentially incurring fines that threaten their economic viability”.

“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,” it goes on to add. It was these specific concerns about memes which made the headlines in media organisations such as BBC News and Sky News, and led to many young and witty remainers to joke that they now support the vote to leave the EU in 2016’s referendum.

As with most policies, there is a degree of ambiguity and over-the-top formality in the EU Commission’s proposal, but campaigners are right to voice concerns about Article 13 affecting memes. In the UK, there’s certain instances where duplicates of copyrighted work such as photos and videos can be monetised – provided the new version is transformative. In other words, creative forms such as reviews and parodies are covered under fair use or fair dealing because they bring new ideas to the table, and thus don’t infringe upon the market of the original work.

Before I elaborate, I should stress and issue a disclaimer that I am not a legal expert or lawyer, and so my knowledge of copyright and fair use comes from my time on YouTube and as a journalism student whose dabbled a little bit in media law.

Upon hearing this news for the first time, I was curious to know how such a proposal – if fully backed and passed within the different organisations within the EU – would be enforced. However, after seeing the term “recognition technologies” within the document, it’s clear that we’re talking about systems similar to YouTube’s Content ID function. Yet, even that has it’s problems…

With any legislation – especially those regarding any form of expression (e.g. free speech laws or copyright laws) – it’s important that it allows for context. On a site like YouTube, for example, video game cutscenes may be flagged for copyright infringement when they may be a part of a play through by a games reviewer. YouTube film critics face issues around copyrighted movie footage which, for a video-sharing site, is essential for illustrating their review. In all of these instances a computer system may struggle to understand the underlying context in which the copyrighted content is placed. Searches for matching content can be easily coded and incorporated into an algorithm – context cannot.

Therefore, I am mainly sceptical of this proposal, but that’s not to say that I don’t see where the EU Commission is coming from. Whilst the possible restriction on memes is ridiculous and nonsensical and falls under transformative fair use, I do believe that more adequate protection needs to be put in place for talented artists who may find companies using their drawings and illustrations online without credit.

Although, this brings me to another issue with this policy. Whilst legislation can be a blanket law to address a rare event or a small instance, group etc., on this occasion, using algorithms to scan whole websites for this one specific issue may actually do more harm than good. We have to protect artists and illustrators who are having their content duplicated without no transformative element, but a dragnet algorithm is not the right way. Instead, much like some sites already have flagging and reporting systems, each platform should have a report button which allows creators to request to have the duplicate taken down.

As much as we should be concerned about what Article 13 means for memes, we should also question what alternative laws there needs to be to protect artists’ work.

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A UK debate on net neutrality could happen post-Brexit – we must be ready | The Friday Article

Pizzas, memes and American talk show hosts have all tried their hand at explaining one of the most complicated issues facing the world of technology today. On Wednesday, organisations staged a ‘day of action’ for Net Neutrality Day, showing the world what it would be like if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had the power to prioritise certain traffic or websites over others.

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It’s time we started talking about net neutrality across the pond.

Watching the debate from across the pond, UK citizens breathed a sigh of relief knowing that net neutrality has been enshrined into EU law. That is, until the moment they realised that we voted to leave the bloc just over a year ago. Now, just like other EU laws, the regulation that allows us to enjoy online content regardless of whom our ISP is hangs in the balance.

Cue another piece of political news which did the rounds yesterday which could put all of this at risk: the government’s not-so-great Repeal Bill. If it passes in the state that it’s in now (somewhat unlikely), then ministers will be granted the power to pass secondary legislation. Whilst it’s nice that the Conservatives want to cut Parliament’s workload (dealing with over 50,000 pieces of legislation sounds like quite the hassle), doing so in a way which avoids the scrutiny of MPs has opposition parties raising their eyebrows – and rightly so.

Even if the Tories decide not to amend the regulation without scrutiny, a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, however flawed it may be, could see the net neutrality law scrapped. Regardless of the fact there was a ‘voluntary system’ prior to this law, given Theresa May’s calls ‘to regulate cyberspace’ and the passing of the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’, any opportunity to degrade internet freedoms will most likely be taken by the Tories.

We need to act now. With the latest data from the Office for National Statistics revealing that 99% of 16 to 34 year olds are recent internet users (compared to just 41% of adults aged 75 or over), a British debate on net neutrality could very well be led by the younger generation.

It would certainly be a powerful campaign from our young people, too. The Conservative Party has been left battered and bruised after the youth vote crushed her arrogance (not to mention her majority) after last month’s general election. Tory MPs scrapping net neutrality – threatening young people’s Netflix subscriptions, social media access and main campaigning platform – would be a very, very bad idea.
One must not fall into stereotypes when discussing the internet, but as much as the youth campaign should challenge any decision to allow ISP’s to control the viewing of online content, it must also ensure that older people understand the issues associated with this. Net neutrality is an issue which affects all of us. Even if an individual is offline, they will be indirectly affected by an unfair Internet.

The possibility of a second general election has left everyone in a political limbo, with a degree of uncertainty about what’s coming next. Depending on what side of the political spectrum people identify, it either fills them with hope or dread. Either way, for the sake of our online society, the surge of young people being interested in politics must never fade.

Frequency Festival: What are our digital rights?

Yesterday the first night of Lincoln’s Frequency Festival opened with an interesting discussion into our digital rights and freedom. With the city celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year, the festival’s first event asked: what would the digital Magna Carta would look like?

Speakers at the debate included Professor Raul Espejo (Director-General of the World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics), Wendy Grossman (a writer, folksinger and journalist) and Richard Barbrook (senior lecturer at the University of Westminster). The event also saw contributions from the audience.

Admittedly, I was under the impression that the event would be a debate, when it was more a series of three lectures from the main speakers. All three of them – Professor Espejo, Dr Barbrook and Ms Grossman – all presented different views on the proposed digital bill of rights. Whilst it was interesting to see three different perspectives, I was particularly interested in Professor Espejo’s talk about Cyberfolk and Algedonic Meters.

Basically, the discussion was around a data loop between the people and the state. The meter itself was for an ‘inclusive democracy’ and enabled the public to “[respond] to what policy makers were doing” (Espejo, 2015). In particular, this would be the public saying that they liked a particular debate or proposal.

At the same time, government discussions were being broadcast to the masses. However, at the top of this loop (or dichotomy, if you will), the state are overwhelmed with public data and are unable to handle the data correctly or ethically. According to Espejo (2015), the “extreme proliferation of data today is misunderstood” and proposed that “digital abuses of freedom and privacy […] need to be replaced by a society and individually fair ‘variety engineering” – the term variety referring to Ashby’s law of requisite variety.

This abuse of freedom and privacy at the top is something which I discussed previously in my post about the Channel 4 series, Hunted. After writing this post, one of the key questions I raised, which I wanted to explore further, was whether we as individuals have the right to complain about breaches of privacy when – through social media sites for example – we publicly and freely volunteer that information?

It’s a question I still don’t think that I have the answer to. But, having said that, one of the points raised about this issue was the fact that, alongside the state not knowing how to handle the mass amounts of data, the individual does not know how to properly volunteer data. In particular, someone does not know how that data could be used to benefit themselves, or others in the future. An example which Wendy Grossman gave was the first college-goers at Harvard who used the early version of Facebook, without knowing that what they post may one day be available on Google.

In that respect, I think we, as individuals, need to learn about digital footprints in detail. But in terms of a Digital Bill of Rights, perhaps it would be wise to place regulations on the individual to prevent them from volunteering certain data. If not that, then we should be made aware of what that data could mean in the future, or where it could be made available (like a Harvard student’s Facebook post being visible on Google, for instance – as mentioned above).

Once again, it comes back to the line between public and private in terms of technology. If a Digital Bill of Rights were to be drafted, then it’s likely that the main defence for an accusation of a privacy breach would be that the data in question is readily available to the public. An interesting example of this is a piece of work by Liz Sterry called ‘Kay’s Blog’. This, which was part of a Furtherfield exhibition entitled ‘Being Social’, was a project which saw Sterry reconstruct the bedroom of a blogger (named Kay) – with the information being obtained solely from her blog posts.

Admittedly, I myself would find this a rather large invasion of privacy, especially when it goes on to appear in a public exhibition. But as mentioned beforehand, if this information has been made public, then there is no defence. To be honest, should the terms and conditions of social media platforms not cover this already, then a Digital Bill of Rights should include an agreement. This agreement would state that as much as an individual would consider information published online as private, everyone who uses the Internet today knows that it is a public hub for creativity and information. For that reason, the Digital Bill should remind individuals that information obtained about them from social media cannot be seen as a breach of privacy. However, I do think that there are some exceptions when it comes to state surveillance (see my Hunted post for more information).

Similarly, this can be an issue when it comes to copyright and intellectual property. Yes, whilst most cases are easily identified and breaches of copyright can often be dealt with, it’s a piece of legislation which tries cover as much of the ever-expanding Internet as possible.

In a somewhat similar example, the music industry has been impacted by illegal downloading for a while now. Admittedly, the problem has escalated to the point that enforcing a legislation would simply not work, but that just demonstrates how hard it is to place laws on a rapidly changing entity such as the Internet. In terms of intellectual property, how can we stop the majority from breaching copyright, rather than the few?

Finally, if we were to consider the web as being this massive creative pool for the public, then who owns the Internet? This was a question raised by an audience member and it certainly was an interesting one. In the past, control over the Internet has turned into a bizarre free-for-all, with companies and the government both being eager to regulate or control aspects of technology. For example, a recent campaign to promote net neutrality talked about stopping Internet Service Providers from restricting Internet access to certain sites or content. A more recent example is Home Secretary Theresa May’s Draft Communications Data Bill (dubbed ‘the snooper’s charter’), where the government plans to gain more powers in terms of investigation and surveillance.

However, what we don’t have is rules or laws put in place by the public. If a Digital Bill of Rights was to be introduced, then how could it be made law? Who would enforce it? How could it be maintained, updated and enforced on every single online citizen?

Whilst governments and companies may be trying to control certain aspects of technology and the web, the Internet will always belong to ‘the people’. In a sense, the Internet is a Marxist hub. If we are to call it that, then of course one of the main issues is that the promotion of Marxism is contradictory – in order to enforce Marxism you need a leader.

So, in that case, how can a Digital Bill of Rights for the digital citizen and ‘the people’ be enforced – and by whom? How could the bill be maintained and updated?

Liam