Europe's digital controls are stifling innovation

In fact rather than protect small news sites, the regulations could finally drive them out of business altogether.

By Mariella Radaelli & Jon Van Housen

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Published: Sun 24 Jun 2018, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 24 Jun 2018, 10:58 PM

Even the most disinterested European knows the EU parliament is regulation-mad. It has passed laws on the permitted curvature of bananas and cucumbers, the maximum size of vacuum cleaner motors and banned bottled water from claiming it fights dehydration.
Now the wider world is beginning to feel the mind-numbing regulatory noise churned on by the 751-member body and its bewildering number of committees and subcommittees. Last week its legal affairs committee approved a copyright law that even copyright experts say is almost unenforceable and would damage two of the most important foundations of the internet - links and user-shared information.
In a bid to protect traditional European media from online giants like Google, the so-called "link tax" law stipulates that a fee must be paid by news aggregators to originators of content, even if it is a simply a headline or snippet. And news sites themselves must play along even if they don't want to. They are not permitted to opt out and supply content free of charge.
Marco Scialdone, professor of law and management of online content and services at the European University of Rome, says it is a misguided attempt to protect the little guy. "We must be honest, this is a law with only one subject in mind: Google," says Scialdone. "Let's take the money from the 'evil rich' and give it back to the poor newspapers who are suffering because of the internet. Unfortunately these new rules can affect a much broader audience and produce unattended consequences."
In fact rather than protect small news sites, the regulations could finally drive them out of business altogether. As they struggle to monetise their content through ads, page views are crucial to online newspapers, and Google news is a prized aggregator that can drive traffic their way.
However,  Google might just pull the plug. When Spain implemented a similar law, Google decided to pull its news service from the country.
Another aspect of the copyright law approved last week requires online sites that accept user-posted content to imbed automated scanning programmes to check for copyright violations. The cost and technical headaches of such a plan would leave only the biggest sites able to comply.
Guido Scorza, a lawyer and research fellow in legal aspects of new technology at the University of Bologna, says "the proposal is a very bad mixture of rules with many errors. It would be very difficult, in my view, that the new rules will reach the results expected."
"Adopting a technical anti-pirate solution to user-generated content will leave (the scanning filter) with the power to decide the editorial line of online information," says Scorza. "I'm very worried about that."
Scialdone notes the "problem is not only about filters but also about liability - I'm not sure that the business plan of a startup can sustain this kind of risk."
The regulations could also squeeze out innovation, even diminishing an informed public and posing a threat to democracy. "They project and write the rule thinking about Google, but in the end the directive will be applicable also to the last startup," Scorza says. "In this way a law born to reduce the market power of internet giants risks reducing competition and the content sharing ecosystem. The chilling effect is real: less competition means less freedom of speech and less democracy."
The disruptive world of the internet is questioning the most fundamental conceptions of copyright laws and protection. And the new copyright law is troubling enough that even the biggest names in the internet have weighed in. Seventy internet legends, including the creator of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, signed an open letter to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, in June that argues the new law would take "an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users".
With the range of concerns expressed, some are hopeful the full EU parliament will debate and then dump the new copyright law altogether before it takes effect in 2021.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at the Luminosity Italia news agency in Milan

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