The EU has long been synonymous with liberal economics. An entire movement of leftist Euroscepticism is founded on the notion that the Union is harshly capitalistic. Helpfully, the EU has now clarified its position as the purveyor of an interventionist hellscape by introducing the most ludicrous piece of legislation since the Licensing Act of 1872 made it illegal to be drunk while in possession of a cow.
Few should be surprised that the EU, which has no fewer than seven presidents, is a hub of festering bureaucracy. Nonetheless, it continues to break exciting new ground with administrative exercises of exponentially increasing futility, to the point that anyone even thinking about running a business is swamped in enough red tape to wrap all the Christmas presents of every single one of the ten trillion faceless androids who make up its almighty bureaucratic machine.
Sir Humphrey Appleby of the timeless Yes, Minister would be immensely proud of the EU as it stands today. “Governments can only measure their success by the size of their staff and budget,” he declares. “Suppose everybody went around saving money irresponsibly all over the place!” Not only is the EU immune to any measures designed to improve efficiency, but it seems irretrievably in the grip of a brutal jurisdictive addiction which compels it to churn out endless new regulations, governing everyone and everything in sight to within an inch of their lives.
The latest example of this, known as the Copyright Directive, represents state interference at its very worst. An inherently undemocratic, cripplingly unaccountable and wildly inefficient supranational government bungles its way into a thriving industry like a drunk in a bar, bellowing and pointing at disgusted onlookers about how they are living their lives all wrong. It is so amazingly toxic that swathes of lawmakers had to be tricked into approving it through sleazy tactics such as changing the voting order without telling anyone so that members of Parliament voted it through by mistake.
Article 13 has been the subject of intense discussion in recent months. We all foresaw its arrival, but it was so godawful and frankly risible that we subconsciously refused en masse to accept its veracity for some time. As a result, the Creature from the Brussels Black Lagoon caught us by surprise while we were preoccupied with other things. It crept up on us like a mugger in the night, except that this one is wearing an ill-fitting Italian suit and loafers that don’t match, is very clearly drunk and is armed only with a croissant and a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard.
If there is one good thing about the Copyright Directive, it is that it is mercifully easy to understand. The EU hates progress and loves paperwork; appreciating the driving forces behind legal developments is rarely simpler than that. We live in a bizarre dystopian timeline in which nonsensically technical discussions persistently and violently pry their way into our political discourse, leading us to the ludicrous point where people unironically discuss the merits of different types of customs unions on BBC Radio 5 Live. It is helpful, therefore, when a news story not directly related to that day’s epic Brexit cock-up comes along to concisely remind us of why we are subjecting ourselves to all this.
Article 13 is the EU in a nutshell. It epitomises everything that is wrong with the over-grown, over-blown bloc, all in one handy little take-anywhere package. It represents staggeringly clumsy state intervention in private industry. It fails to take account of even the most basic aspects of how the Internet works, in a manner akin to that of senile US Senators quizzing Mark Zuckerberg on how he makes any profit when Facebook’s services are free to users. And, best of all, unlike murderously complicated Brexit developments, it is a good old-fashioned news story that can be condensed into a headline that is crying out for nuance but is guaranteed to evoke a reaction. EU bans memes! That is the kind of politics people without a PhD in the European constitution can understand.
The main problem with Article 13 is that it is completely unnecessary. It seeks to make it more difficult for copyrighted content to be maliciously used without its owner’s permission. Laws prohibiting exactly that already exist and are in force across Europe. Under the existing laws, if a party believes their content has been used unlawfully, they can sue and win damages. This is a wholly sufficient legal framework; the new reforms are entirely extraneous. Then again, if they cannot spend countless manhours crafting needless new regulation, what is a colossal horde of civil servants bored out of their minds to do?
The Copyright Directive aims to place the burden on the providers of platforms, such as social media companies, by compelling them to implement considerably stricter internal content regulation. This, of course, explains YouTube’s vociferous campaign against the move. Tech companies will find themselves forced to censor content harshly to prevent even the slightest whiff of copyright infringement, in order to avoid legal jeopardy. This, besides anything else, is directly antithetical to fundamental principles of the rule of law.
Trying to legally compel YouTube to pre-emptively ban the upload of content that may or may not infringe copyright law is like trying to force a company that manufactures kitchen equipment to pre-emptively guarantee that its knives will never be used in acts of violence. Such action is not possible and attempts to make it a legal requirement will result only in the stifling of investment and the compromise of consumer rights. It is the clumsiest approach to legislation imaginable.
YouTube, for instance, already uses a highly effective Content ID system which detects, flags up and even blocks copyright-protected content such as music and videos. This policy is in place because it is not in YouTube’s interest to have to fight dozens of new court cases every day over copyright infringement. Article 13 will go one step further — and then about another hundred steps after that — by making it illegal for YouTube to host any copyrighted content whatsoever without express permission from its owner, which in turn will force YouTube to raise its standards markedly, which will have a knock-on effect on users and content creators, as well as the profitability of the company and the viability of further growth and investment in Europe.
We are living through something of a vlogger’s renaissance. Over three hundred hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute and, inevitably, much like those Shakespearean monkeys and their typewriters, some of it is worthwhile. Article 13 will put an end to that once and for all; in Europe, at least. It has been reported that some videos containing birdsong or cats purring have been misidentified by the present system as infringing audio copyright; these disadvantages of unavoidably fallible systems will be exacerbated many times over by the cataclysmically irresponsible measures spelled out in Article 13.
This is not a case of a particular clause within a piece of legislation being ill-thought-out and leading to unforeseen consequences; the entire approach to regulation espoused in the Copyright Directive is fundamentally flawed. It is like insisting on the use of sledgehammers to crack nuts, resulting in a cloud of nutty dust and not a single discernible nut. This modus operandi is yet more catastrophic for smaller technology companies such as Patreon, which do not have the disposable funds of Google or Facebook and will struggle to comply with the new rules, resulting inevitably in a blatant hinderance of growth and development.
Unsurprisingly, no other legislative body around the world has shown any sign of considering replicating the EU Copyright Directive in their jurisdiction (which probably has something to do with the fact that European agenda-setters are perhaps the only Western politicians who will not have to face democratic accountability for their decisions, meaning that they needn’t bother with pesky inconveniences like public opinion or common sense). The result is that the Internet will soon become detached from a separate European sub-Internet, which will have its own set of standards and an entirely different approach to regulation and online consumer and creator rights.
This means that citizens of EU countries where Article 13 is implemented will have access to a different version of YouTube, for instance, to everyone else. For those who are not au fait with the use of VPNs, the Internet will essentially no longer extend beyond the borders of Europe. The new measures will also nigh-on eliminate any chance for any technology company that is not already one of the established giants to grow and become a significant player. The Next Big Thing will not come from Europe, because companies here will be competing at a debilitating disadvantage.
Some have claimed that the branding of Article 13 as a ‘meme ban’ is an unfair characterisation. They point forlornly at the vague provisions it makes for undefined categories such as ‘parody’ and ‘pastiche’, which sound impressively non-committal, to the effect that the platforms — which are understandably unattracted to the idea of hauling themselves in front of the European courts on a regular basis over this — will be forced to err on the safe side. In other words, the inevitable consequence of this he-hits-and-he-misses Directive will be that a huge volume of content that breaks no rules whatsoever will be blocked.
Memes might not be completely banned, in the same way that careering a Ferrari head-on into a tree at a hundred miles an hour might not make it disintegrate or cause it to disappear without a trace. But you still won’t be driving it again any time soon.