Online activists and lobbyists are using digitally manipulated protests and misinformation to fight a copyright reform in Europe. They know what they are doing. Do Members of the European Parliament know what this is about? A guest commentary.
Translated from original German text:
“History doesn’t repeat itself, it just writes the bill,” said luxembourgian musician Jerome Reuter in an interview once. On the occasion of the recent events surrounding the European Parliament’s narrow rejection of a copyright amendment in July, Reuter’s statement may be endorsed. As for the second time, Internet activists and companies have exerted considerable influence on European policy with a concerted information campaign, and once again it was about the fundamental attempts of enabling copyright protection on the Internet. Once again, the “end of the Internet as we know it” was conjured up, an enormous expansion of censorship on the Internet feared and the alleged influence of creative industry lobbyists on European politics criticised.
With false information against the ratification of the copyright amendment in the EU Parliament
The first time was the winter of 2012 when one hundred and fifty thousand demonstrators across Europe took to the streets, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, protesting against an international trade agreement called ACTA. They were motivated by a visualised summary of the supposedly frightening effects of the trade agreement, the Youtube video “What is ACTA?” which can still be seen today and which issued the trade agreement as a pact towards a dystopian surveillance state on the internet. It struck a chord with Internet users, the media and some politicians alike.
Only days after the ratification of ACTA had been rejected by several state parliaments and the storm of indignation had died down, did the public and the media realise that the trade agreement had only a marginal connection with law enforcement on the Internet. Rather, it was intended to ensure better international cooperation against trademark piracy. “Does anyone out there still read primary sources?” asked IT specialist lawyer Nina Diercks in her blog. She was surprised at the hysterical discussion and reporting. It also suddenly became apparent that the Youtube shock video in 2012 had not only been based on the ACTA negotiations status of 2009, but had also interpreted them in the most negative way. The agreement that was to be decided had nothing more to do with the video. It fell victim to a propaganda trick. It became, the European Ground Zero of what we now call “Fake News”. A public reappraisal of the ACTA disinformation campaign never took place, and therefore this propaganda coup could not only be repeated in matters of consecutive trade agreements (TTIP, Ceta). Now an amendment to copyright law in the European Parliament was overturned with similar false information. History does not repeat itself, it just writes the bill.
Propaganda instead of factual facts
More than six million e-mails reached the European Parliament in the days before the vote. The rapporteur of the amendment, Axel Voss (CDU), received sixty thousand e-mails asking him not to approve the amendment. SPD member of parliament Udo Bullmann even reported death threats against various parliamentarians by e-mail. In hacker circles such a mail flood is called DDOS (Distributed Denial Of Service) attack, websites are paralyzed by a bombardment of user requests. Tim Allan, press spokesman for the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, spoke of the most extreme lobbying impact on a parliamentary legislative process since its inception.
In addition to powerful tools that activists can use to automatically send emails, Twitter messages or make free international calls to MEPs’ offices, the “Saveyourinternet.eu” page contains (as this newspaper reports on 18th, 27 August and 5 September) simplifications such as “Article 13 threatens your ability to link content” (wrong), “Article 13 threatens blog pages” (wrong) or “Article 13 threatens sharing parodies” (wrong). Concerned Internet users are incited with disinformation. There is a specific term for such strategic action: It is propaganda.
In the case of the copyright amendment, the fears of the opponents of the amendment, led by Julia Reda, the last remaining MEP of the Pirate Party, seem strangely constructed: Upload filters would prevent copyrighted content from being uploaded and shared by users who have acquired no rights to it. Reda fears that these filters would block more content than just the works to be protected and that satire or quotes would certainly be included. This would lead to a censorship of the Internet, there would be deep cuts in freedom of expression through excessive overblocking to fear.
Internet platforms to be forced to license
Anyone who reads the original text of the copyright amendment will be surprised at this apocalyptic interpretation, because the installation of upload filters is not a mandatory measure mentioned within the draft. Rather, the amendment attempts to persuade large Internet platforms, streaming sites or social media services, which primarily offer content uploaded by users, to license the content commercially by changing the liability rules. For decades, copyright law has provided for licenses for all other commercial users of protected content. In particular, major commercial platforms should pay fees for the use of music, films and texts like any other commercial licensee who uses works protected by copyright. After all, the platforms earn money from the content via advertising and data analysis. The amendment is intended to eliminate a legislative imbalance that has hitherto enabled commercial Internet platforms to make profit from the content uploaded by their users, even if neither users nor platform have acquired any rights for it.
In an unusual unanimity 73 creative industry associations, such as the associations of the music industry, musicians’ and authors’ associations, actors, collecting societies or the umbrella organisation of the German film industry, voted together for the amendment in order to eliminate the market distortion caused by the lack of liability rules. After an intensive debate and various amendments to the amendment, the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament followed the argumentation at the end of May and voted with fifteen to ten in favour of the controversial Article 13. Non-profit platforms such as Wikipedia, smaller platforms, blogs or even open source and science platforms were expressly excluded from the amended liability rules, which did not prevent organisations such as Wikimedia Deutschland, the operator organisation of the German Wikipedia, from continuing to claim that their existence was threatened by the amendment.
“Censorship” is interpreted very creatively
The accusations that the amendment leads to censorship, as Sascha Lobo claimed in his “Spiegel” column or Youtube star LeFloyd claims in a clip clicked over 550,000 times, are not covered by the primary text in any way. Stylizing uploading filters to “censorship machines” (Lobo) or distorting the novella into a “censorship law” (LeFloyd) is based on a rather creative interpretation of the term “censorship”. Censorship is based on a state content definition and an absolute scope. The voluntary use of an upload filter by a platform to save licence fees and counteract copyright infringements by its users is therefor not a form of censorship. In addition, the amendment provides for possibilities for users to defend themselves against possible false blocking. Uploaders whose content would be blocked as allegedly unlawful would also be entitled to a statutory complaint procedure on the platforms, which needs to be carried out in a timely manner.
The further the reporting on the copyright amendment moves away from the primary source, the less factual and one-sided the submissions become. As with ACTA, the primary source – the actual text of the law – is largely ignored, as it also includes sensible rules on orphan works, fair participation by authors, the right of associations to sue, and access to culture and information for the disabled.
What does it mean for our society if deliberate disinformation on the Internet overlaps not only politics but also the media to such an extent that democratic processes and the free formation of opinion are sabotaged?
First of all, this means that we should question the ideal of the “free flow of information”, the inherent belief of net political activists. This narrative of an unregulated network that promises us an open, intelligent, participatory society is increasingly being disenchanted since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that the network’s data-centric infrastructure has a dark side that has lead us to the edge of a global surveillance society. Other initially acclaimed manifestations of radical transparency and participation also proved flawed: Wikileaks, Anonymous, swarm intelligence – all of these began idealistically, but soon revealed their deficits. Swarm intelligence turned into swarm stupidity, participation into hate speech, the free flow of information into algorithmically supported disinformation, leading to events as relevant as the potential manipulation of the last American presidential election or a Brexit referencum overshadowed by disinformation. However, this does not prevent the net activists from adhering to their ideology. In order to assert them, they make use of simplification, disinformation and manipulation, as can be seen from the example of the copyright amendment.
When apologists of a free flow of information resort to populist distortions, as has happened here, they betray their own fundamental ideals. This is called a life lie.
The syntax of the internet is detrimental to democracy
We urgently need a new Internet narrative that recognizes that access to information is only apparently free and socially useful while algorithms pre-sort our information horizon, equating popularity with relevance. The master algorithm popularity = relevance is deeply inscribed in the infrastructural DNA of the internet, steadily reprogramming our society. With the infiltration of such information services, that are targeted towards steadily confirming our opinions, serving our interests and networking us predominantly with like-minded people, we constantly lessen our societal abilities to differentiate and hold constructive discourses and heat up the growing disenchantment with politics and media. Facebook’s “Social Graph”, the semantic facebook algorithm programmed for the preferences of our content, threatens our freedom of expression more than any copyright uploadfilter in the amendment ever could. Part of this is that we have as complete an information horizon as possible, through which we can get to know different opinions and conduct discourses in order to negotiate democratic processes. It is not for nothing that the German Constitution adds to its understanding of freedom of expression the need to be able to obtain unhindered information from public sources. Our online horizon is curbed, defined by platforms which, because of their inherent hunger for data, tempt us to stay within their platforms as long and as much as possible: Just don’t switch off, just don’t click away. What we don’t like, what does not support one’s own opinion, is imperceptibly pushed into the background. The AfD voter is hardly shown any content that makes foreigners look good; instead, there is a double dose of migrant fake news. The feminist only gets to see feminist-friendly content. The shared media public that unites us all, the search for consensus, recedes and is overshadowed by an individualized information offer that constantly confirms us: “You’re correct, almost everyone else thinks the same way you do.”
The rise of populists in England, Italy, North America, Germany, Hungary and Austria is strikingly synchronized with the increasing reach of our social media platforms. Populism sets the tone. Those who use the new information channels more effectively, more consistently for their own purposes gain the power. The National Socialists knew this when they offered the radio “Volksempfänger” for 35 Reichsmark in order to extend their reach. The new right-wing populists know the same.
Their rise also shows the far-reaching failure of the agenda-setting of German and European network politics: the hope for desirable technologies and competitive future scenarios while at the same time ignoring the most pressing economic, social, media and informational problems of today. If these are ignored, the immune systems of functioning societies are weakened and democracies become vulnerable at their core. There is therefore no more important digitization problem than the syntactic reformatting of our digital information horizon by the algorithms of the major platforms.
And while the large Internet platforms are becoming more and more powerful, the side of those who produce content is bleeding out economically. As a society, we deprive content makers of their financial basis through piracy and insistence on a free culture; this applies to both culture and the media. In regulatory terms, those online corporations that are economically unchallenged at the top of the food chain are even supported by politicians. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu and Tencent are the largest, most successful and most valuable companies in the world. Content brands such as the New York Times, Reuters and MTV have disappeared from the top 100 brand rankings. But politics is even subsidizing the mega-companies by tolerating tax loopholes and missing liability rules. The infrastructure eats up the content.
The European copyright amendment wants to reverse this trend. It has been temporarily stopped by Internet activists, some of whom are involuntary but always useful assistants to technology and platform companies.
On September 12, the European Parliament will once again vote on the new Copyright Directive. In the days before – now – the digital siege of MEPs could continue. The outcome of the second vote is open, as is whether there will be another disinformation attack on parliamentarians and their staff. Will this kind of propaganda determine the decision-making process in Parliament? One thing is clear: History is in the making.
Stefan Herwig runs the Internet thinktank “Mindbase” and advises politics and business on network policy issues. He is a former owner of an independent music label.