The European Parliament on Wednesday approved a controversial EU copyright law that hands more power to news and record companies against internet giants like Google and Facebook that promised to fight on.
The watershed vote in the French city of Strasbourg confirmed the European Union as Silicon Valley’s most powerful critic and follows anti-trust decisions that have cost Google and Apple billions.
The EU is also leading the political charge on protecting data privacy, and just ahead of the copyright vote warned web firms it could hold them responsible for terrorist propaganda.
Backing the copyright draft were traditional media, in urgent search of income at a time when web users are shunning newspapers and television with advertising revenue siphoned away by online platforms.
European lawmakers were sharply divided on the copyright issue, with both sides engaging in some of the most intense lobbying the EU has ever seen.
But, despite uncertainty ahead of the vote, MEPs meeting in Strasbourg ended up passing the draft law with 438 votes in favour, 226 against, and 39 abstentions.
“I am relieved,” said German MEP Axel Voss who tabled the law, which now goes for negotiation with the EU member states.
“What we have achieved should not be interpreted as a confrontation… We just want creators to be respected in the digital world,” he added.
The text MEPs settled on compromised on ways news organisations will charge companies for links to content, with platforms free to use “a few words” of text, according to a key amendment.
It also spared small companies from so-called upload filters that will make platforms — such as YouTube or Facebook — liable for copyright breaches and force them to automatically delete content by violators.
MEP Julia Reda, a strong opponent of the law, called these “cosmetic changes” and slammed the vote as “a severe blow to the free and open internet”.
‘Great step forward’
French President Emmanuel Macron, who firmly backed the reform, hailed “a great step forward for Europe”.
“I am proud that France has been at the forefront of this fight,” he added on his Twitter account.
The draft had been fiercely resisted by US tech giants as well as online freedom activists, with some campaigners warning it could spell the end of viral “memes” or jokes.
Opponents also fear that automatic filters to prevent users from sharing content subject to copyright could be misused to censor political messages or other forms of free expression.
The Computer & Communications Industry Association, the major tech lobby, said MEPs “ignored the warnings… on the real threats this proposal causes.”
Lawmakers can now start negotiations with the European Council representing the 28 member states which had already reached a compromise on the issue in May.
These closed-door discussions, which also include the European Commission, are known in EU jargon as “trilogues” and can take several months before any compromise is put to a fresh vote.
“We now urge the Council and Parliament to come to a balanced outcome in the final negotiations,” said CCIA, which has Google, Facebook and Uber as members.
Proponents of the reform would like a law before the European elections in May 2019, when many fear an influx of eurosceptic MEPs with little use for the measure.
The bitter lobbying battle, which will continue behind the scenes, was over two parts of the planned law.
The first and most contentious was Article 13, which would make platforms like Google-owned YouTube legally liable if their users share copyrighted material, to prevent content producers being ripped off.
Critics say the change will lead in effect to blanket censorship of platforms that have become an online hub for creativity as well as the prime source of entertainment — at the expense of TV — for younger generations.
“Upload filters or anything else that restricts this will stop artists from making and creating the future,” said former Fugees star Wyclef Jean on Tuesday in Strasbourg.
The second key disputed provision was Article 11. This would create a so-called “neighbouring right”, meaning that newspapers, magazines, and news agencies would receive a fee when web services link to their stories.