The European Parliament on Tuesday voted in favor of a controversial new law that will bring sweeping reforms to how copyrighted content posted online is governed. The legislation was adopted with 348 votes in favor and 274 against.
For proponents of digital rights, the decision comes as a huge blow after over a year of campaigning to uphold what they see as the integrity of the internet. Member of the European Parliament Julia Reda, one of the most vocal critics of the directive, said on Twitter that the vote signals a "dark day for internet freedom."
Years in the making, the EU Copyright Directive has been heavily debated and divisive among politicians, as well as a cause of concern for the tech industry. One part of the proposal in particular -- Article 13, which will govern the way copyrighted content is uploaded to the internet -- has many in the tech community throwing their hands up in despair.
Under the law, internet platforms will be liable for content that users upload, a burden that will fall heavily on some of the most popular online services.
"YouTube, Facebook and Google News are some of the internet household names that will be most directly affected by this legislation," the European Parliament said in a statement.
The effects of the law may be felt well beyond Europe's borders, given the global nature of the internet and the need for tech companies to come up with policies that can be broadly applied. That's what happened after the EU enacted the, or GDPR, in May 2018.
Critics said legislators had turned a deaf ear to a wide range of experts and to the general population.
"In a stunning rejection of the will [of] five million online petitioners, and over 100,000 protestors this weekend, the European Parliament has abandoned common sense and the advice of academics, technologists, and UN human rights experts, and approved the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive in its entirety," said rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a blog post.
Before the text can be adopted in European law, it must next be approved by the Council of the European Union. It's still possible that the directive may not be passed by the Council, but that would involve at least one key country changing its mind. A vote is expected to take place April 9.
After EU member states themselves accept the text of the directive, it will take effect after publication in the official journal and member states will have two years to implement it.
A second section of the directive, Article 11, says search engines and news aggregators will be charged to display snippets of news they're linking to (known as a link tax). That will be another source of frustration for tech companies.
Back in January, Google said it may have to pull its news service from Europe entirely if the directive passes in its current state. Screenshots captured by Search Engine Land showed how Google news results could appear in Europe if Google doesn't pay the tax. (Spoiler alert: They're just a bunch of empty boxes.) Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment following the outcome of the vote.
How the law hits home
The European Parliament says that the directive is meant to ensure that longstanding rights and obligations of copyright law also apply to the internet. Article 13 dictates that anyone sharing copyrighted content must get permission from rights owners -- or at least have made the best possible effort to get permission -- before doing so.
"This directive is an important step towards correcting a situation which has allowed a few companies to earn huge sums of money without properly remunerating the thousands of creatives and journalists whose work they depend on," Axel Voss, the European Parliament rapporteur, said in a statement.
In order to enforce this, internet platforms will likely have to use upload filters to evaluate anything they put online. Even the wealthiest online services such as Facebook and YouTube, which have spent years developing this technology, haven't been able to prove pre-moderation of content is a foolproof method for preventing content from surfacing online that shouldn't be there.
Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, EU Commissioner for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip pointed out that nothing in the text of the legislation stipulates the use of upload filters. But it's hard to imagine a way in which tech platforms and social networks could otherwise realistically comply with the rules.
But the copyright directive also stopped short of some of the restrictions many had feared. It will, for instance, allow uploading of material to noncommercial sites such as Wikipedia and to open-source platforms including GitHub. Startup platforms also will face light obligations than more established ones, which may soften the blow for those worried that only the biggest and wealthiest may be able to afford to comply with the legislation.
Github welcomed the exception granted to open-source platforms, but noted that the directive still poses challenges for software developers.
"Anyone developing a platform with EU users that involves sharing links or content faces great uncertainty," Tal Niv, GitHub's vice president of law and policy, said in a statement Tuesday. "The ramifications include being unable to develop features that web users currently expect, and having to implement very expensive and inaccurate automated filtering."
Meanwhile, the wacky, creative side of the internet got a reprieve.
"We listened to the concerns raised and chose to doubly guarantee the freedom of expression," Voss said. "The 'meme', the 'gif', the 'snippet' are now protected more than ever before."
Originally published March 25.
Update March 26: Adds result of the EU vote.