Oh, The Huge Manatee

A blog about technology, open source, and the web... from someone who works with all three.

An Open Letter to My MEPs About Article 17 (Formerly Article 13)

The proposal for a directive on copyright in the digital single market is disastrous for the EU economy, culture, and democracy in the digital world. It is particularly bad for my country of Germany, as a leading light in Europe in all three areas. I am writing all of my MEPs listed in support of this impossibly bad proposal.

The German and European economies would be terribly damaged by this article, which effectively rules out small and medium sized competition in favor of the largest incumbents. I work for Microsoft on precisely the kind of machine-understanding tasks involved in the copyright filter requirement. I can tell you with authority: it is an impossible task which only the deepest pockets can approach. Article 17 makes Germany and Europe into hostile venues for Internet startups. The next generation of Youtubes, Soundclouds, and Netflixes are not possible under this Article – unless of course, it’s an existing mega-corporation who decides to start it. This is a tremendous handicap in the fastest growing sector of the global economy.

The disaster for culture exemplifies the impossibility of such a filter. My “side business” is an entertainment company, making opera music accessible for tens of thousands of Europeans every year. The entire classical music industry opposes digital filters because we all know the consequence: a machine or untrained human can’t tell the difference between the 300 different versions of Bach’s Wohl Temperierte Klavier. The piece is identified as probably copyrighted because copyrighted versions exist, and taken down as a precaution. Famously even the European anthem, An die Freude, suffers automated takedowns because there are copyrighted versions of the piece. Asking platforms to bulk-police content means that the more influential a piece of music is for our culture – that is to say, the more versions of it exist – the more prone it is to spurious blocking on copyright grounds.

As much as the technical infeasibility and halting the spread of the most important pieces of our European culture bother me, the effect on democracy in the digital age is the worst part of this Article. User-generated content is foundational to online discussion. It is precisely this content which enriches online debate and engagement, which reaches younger generations and pulls them into a very participatory democratic environment. You’ve no doubt heard that memes are culture, but they are also the medium of exchange in the biggest democratic commons humankind has ever created. Legislation which shuts down this medium of exchange, or which forces the commons into channels controlled by the largest (foreign) economic actors in history, is bad for the EU.

Perhaps the world needs a digital copyright equivalent of Brexit, to scare everyone else away from the copyright lobby. Perhaps we all need a material example to see just how poorly the copyright lobby’s 1960’s-era ideology fits the 21st century economy.

But I would prefer it not be my country, my continent that makes an example of itself.

Please heed the warnings from internet experts, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, NGOs, programmers, and academics. I urge you to reconsider your position on this digital Brexit.

Sincerely,

Campbell Vertesi

Berlin, Germany

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