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New EU Copyright Law Could Force Online Platforms To Ban Memes Across Europe

A new law being just passed in European Parliament and in the process of becoming finalized has received scant media attention, but could be nothing short of revolutionary in terms of its lasting impact on the internet, political speech and discourse, and the potential for censorship. So far the EU is moving the law forward, but it has sparked fierce push back, as it looks likely that soon entirely legal content will be caught in the law’s dragnet. 

The law, in its full named called The European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, is intended to updated existing copyright laws for social media and the internet, but critics say it’s incredibly short sighted and creates more problems than it does solutions. At the heart of the law is Article 11, which as been dubbed the “link tax,” and Article 13, which is being called the “meme ban” due to the likely potential that internet memes could be banned across Europe

Whereas so far the onus has been on artists and creators to flag copyright infringements, the new EU law requires platforms like YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Facebook to be responsible for copyright violations.

This means these large platforms which host immense amounts of constantly updated images, memes, and information could be forced to require users to pass all content through an “upload filter” first which would theoretically ensure copyrighted information doesn’t make it onto the platform. 

This is where memes, which are most often created using existing official images of political figures, events, or cartoons, could be banned as they would likely be flagged by such upload filters. The intent of the law is to protect the copyrighted content of artists, photographers, companies, and individual content creators, but critics say it will change the internet and social media platforms as we known it.

According to Wired commenting on the so-called “meme ban,” or Article 13

No one can quite agree how these platforms are expected to identify and remove this content. An earlier version of the Directive referred to “proportionate content recognition technologies” which sounds an awful lot like it’s asking platform owners to use automate filters to scan every piece of upload content and stop anything that might violate copyright from being uploaded

The reason why this article has been dubbed the “meme ban” is that no one is sure whether memes, which are often based on copyrighted images, will fall foul of these laws. Proponents of the legislation argue that memes are protected as parodies and so aren’t required to be removed under this directive, but others argue that filters won’t be able to distinguish between memes and other copyrighted material so they’d end up being caught in the crossfire anyway.

Likely even before implementation of such upload filters the law itself would have a chilling effect on companies, political groups, and individuals posting memes, for fear of being censored and flagged for copyrighted material. 

Will the “distracted boyfriend” meme soon meet with this fate? This image has been redacted due to violating Article 13 of the EU Copyright Directive.

There will also no doubt be, as Wired explains, and preponderance of incidents where public domain material is filtered out. 

The “link tax,” or Article 11 is also deeply worrisome as it will require the same media platforms to pay a small fee every time snippets of a copyrighted article appear in an aggregator

Wired explains:

The article intends to get news aggregator sites, such as Google News, to pay publishers for using snippets of their articles on their platforms. Press publications “may obtain fair and proportionate remuneration for the digital use of their press publications by information society service providers,” the Directive states.

Like with the potential of a meme ban, it is unclear just how this will be enforced, and how broad the impact will be. It could significantly alter the way users receive headlines and news via certain platforms.

Wired continues:

No one is really sure how this one would work either. How much of an article has to be shared before a platform has to pay the publisher? The Directive states that platforms won’t have to pay if they’re sharing “mere hyperlinks which are accompanied by individual words,” but since most links are accompanied by more than a couple of words it seems that many platforms and news aggregators would fall foul of this rule.

The directive is not set to take effect immediately, and it could still be years before it impacts national legislation of EU member states. It’s now set to enter informal negotiations between the European Commission, Council and Parliament, after successfully being passed by EU Parliament. 

But the bottom line is the law’s final wording will ultimately be set in the opaque deliberations of EU bureaucrats, and it can’t end well for internet giants Google, Facebook, or even individual users that want to retain the right to share simple memes.