You know that time in Wyoming when you wanted to take a picture of a rabbit, but you couldn’t because it was March and taking pictures of rabbits between January and April is illegal in Wyoming? Yeah, but you did anyway right because who’s going to enforce a law where so much depends on being in the right place at the right time?
Fun, antiquated US laws aside, the principle of right time and place has got Google, YouTube and Amazon in quite a tizzy in the last week or two, thanks to a new directive on copyright approved by MEPs at the European Parliament.
In essence, the new law has two parts that are most relevant to us as users of social media platforms and who spend a lot of time Googling “is it normal to…”. These two parts shall henceforth be deemed: The Big Squeeze and I Know What You’re Doing, Stop It (IKWYDSI).
The Big Squeeze or article 11 for correct nomenclature purposes, effectively means that giants such as Google or Amazon will have to pay a licence fee to news outlets, whose work pops up in Google searches or affiliated sites such as Google News.
Article 13 or IKWYDSI is where most of the huffing and puffing is directed. This clause means that sites where content is generated by the user, think YouTube as a prime example, must now adhere to much stricter rules on copyright. Thought you’d put up your favourite live performance from last night’s gig? Not cool. If the artist has not given you specific permission, that is coming down and it’s down to the moderators to make that happen or risk a fine.
If you’ve read this article on platforms trying in vain to remove footage from a terrorist’s live stream recently, you’ll know how hard this is going to be in practice and this is where the user-generated content platforms have got really worked up.
What it means is that sites like YouTube will have to go for a two-fold approach. First, they’ll need to build in more robust filters to ensure that new material meets copyright restrictions and they’ll have to work long and hard, like a Wyoming cop hunting a rabbit photographer, to take down existing material that infringes the new laws. It could, of course, mean that thousands upon thousands of videos are removed over time. Considering the site has something like 400 hours of video uploaded every minute, one can’t help but draw comparisons with Whack-a-Mole, such is the sheer volume of videos popping up.
This platform has taken to Twitter to protest against the restrictions, claiming it is almost impossible to enforce and that it will stifle the creativity of thousands of YouTubers who currently have millions of followers. Famous users took to the channel to create their own protests and urge followers to join the Twitter storm.
Those in favour of the directive appear to be the larger entertainment groups or those organisations protecting artists’ rights and who feel that action on copyright infringement is long overdue.
One slightly unexpected side effect from this copyright clampdown was the real and terrifying prospect that memes might be banned. Altering protected images for (sometimes) humorous effect might become a thing of the past. This triggered something close to hysteria among the teenage populations of Europe who woke up in fear that Article 13 would somehow remove all the things that make the internet fun, including Instagram accounts and especially fan sites where GIFs, stills and images are shared liberally among followers.
This might not sound like the end of the world but try being 15 and finding your people online before having your Stranger Things fandom account shut down with no warning.
You’ll note, of course, that this is an EU directive. This does not affect countries outside the EU as yet. So where on earth does that leave the UK in the light of Brexit negotiations? No clue. And that’s one of the frustrating things about these laws, there are so many questions around them.
What does seem certain though is that, for those of us living in Europe, the face of the internet looks set to change forever. We may find ourselves severely limited to what sites and content we can access not just on YouTube but also Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Will we see a rise in VPN use (Virtual Private Network) that allows us to trick servers into thinking we’re located somewhere other than our home country? Quite possibly.
These regulations will be submitted before the European Council before the end of April and, if approved here, member countries will be given two years before they’re absorbed into their own laws. You never know, we may have sorted out Brexit by then, but in any case, it will certainly give YouTubers and anyone who values their freedom on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the chance to gather support against these restrictions and begin the very real job of saving the internet.