This week started with a terrifying bang, when German and French negotiators announced a deal to revive the worst parts of the new EU Copyright Directive though a compromise on "Article 13," which requires copyright filters for any online service that allows the public to communicate.
The Franco-German "compromise" was truly awful: German politicians, worried about a backlash at home, had insisted on some cosmetic, useless exemptions for small businesses; French negotiators were unwilling to consider even these symbolic nods towards fairness and consideration for free speech, competition, and privacy.
The deal they brokered narrowed the proposed German exemptions to such a degree that they'd be virtually impossible to use, meaning that every EU-based forum for online communications would have to find millions and millions to pay for filters — and subject their users to arbitrary algorithmic censorship as well as censorship through deliberate abuse of the system — or go out of business.
Now that a few days have passed, European individuals, businesses, lobby groups and governments have weighed in on the proposal and everyone hates it.
That German uprising that German politicians feared? It's arrived, in force.
- Bitkom, representing more than 2600 German businesses, from startups to small and medium enterprises, has completely rejected the proposal, calling it "an attack on the freedom of expression";
- Eco, lobbying for more than 1,100 businesses across Europe, said that Germany had "become weak" in its negotiating position, putting "the smallest, small, and medium-sized companies" at risk;
- Deutschestartups tweeted their condemnation of the proposal, saying it put "stones in the way" of any European tech company hoping to grow;
- The Berlin think tank iRights.Lab called for an "immediate and total stop" to the negotiations, so alarmed were they by their direction; while C-Netz, another think tank that serves as a kind of arms-length expert body to Germany's mainstream political parties also denounced the deal.
Meanwhile, the other national governments that have played a central role in the Copyright Directive negotiations have also come out against it: Italy says there is no room in the deal for filters or limits on links to news sites; and in Portugal (which has joined France in refusing any compromise) a massive grassroots movement has sprung up to fight their government on its position.
And while the copyright extremists in the French government may be willing to live with the useless "compromises" in the current deal, their allies have loudly proclaimed the deal to be a betrayal: Axel Voss, the German politician who reintroduced copyright filters to the Directive, condemned the deal, falsely claiming that the European Parliament had refused to create any exemptions to the copyright filters. An association of Europe's largest movie and TV companies has sent a letter to the negotiators saying that the deal France and Germany brokered is unacceptable to them, calling it "not fit for purpose" and complaining that other parts of the Directive give artists and creators too many rights, which might undermine the studios’ profitability. And then, the recording industry — the principal agitators for Article 13 — denounced the deal.
As if that wasn't enough heat for the German negotiators, Bertelsmann, the largest publisher in the world and one of Germany's largest companies, also says it can't live with the French-German compromise.
There's a lazy, cynical view of politics that says that once a politician has found a way to make everyone unhappy, they must have finally found a "balance" that is somehow fair. That's not what's happened here. As the entertainment industry representatives have said repeatedly during this fight, they are after nothing less than a fundamental reshaping of the Internet, where our ability to use networks for employment, family, civics, politics, education, collaboration, romance, and all the other purposes we put them to are subordinated to the use of the Internet as a glorified jukebox and video-on-demand service — where killing every EU competitor to U.S. Big Tech is an acceptable price to pay if it means transferring a few points to Big Content's balance sheet.
The EU Copyright Directive represents an existential threat to the future of the Internet as a place where people can communicate with one another, and hastens the day in which the Internet is a place where large corporations beam their messages to us, with our only freedom being the freedom to change the channel. This new “compromise” changes none of that.
On February 12, the next “trilogue” will take place, and if Germany and France's deal survives until then, this dreadful proposal will go to the European Parliament for a vote shortly before the next EU elections this spring.
Earlier this week, the Directive's passage through the trilogue seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now, it seems like anything is possible. Germany's politicians are facing their people's wrath, and the petition opposing the Directive continues to grow, having gotten more signatures than any petition in European history.
With elections on the horizon and with insurgent parties insisting that the EU is made up of distant, self-dealing technocrats who give everything to corporate lobbyists and nothing to the people, the EU can't afford to continue down this path. The Copyright Directive remains fatally flawed, and any future in which Article 13 becomes the law governing more than 500,000,000 people is a dystopian one indeed.