No matter how it’s phrased, the European Union’s infamous Article 13 stands as a potential menace to the long-standing use of popular culture as political satire. Even if it does expressly claim to respect traditional “fair use” standards, the technology the directive mandates for Internet platforms will lead to de facto mass censorship.
Filtering Out Expression
Article 13 is part of a larger swath of legislation aimed at protecting copyrights that will force websites that host user-generated content – such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. – to make sure that copyright-protected material is not posted. An early version of the article called for platforms to use “proportionate content recognition technologies” to properly police their sites. This has been dubbed the dreaded “upload filter” by opponents of the directive.
While the directive promises that “special account shall be taken of fundamental rights, the use of exceptions and limitations,” it is not clear how a content filter can detect satirical use of an image or clip from a popular movie or song. Thus, content that supposedly would be allowable under “fair use” grounds may be removed along with what the EU deems to be copyright-infringing material. Nor does there seem to be much concern for the rights of individual users who will see their personal expression filtered out in the “higher” cause of protecting corporate copyrights.
And that’s the problem. With the Internet being perhaps the greatest modern tool of free expression since the invention of the written word, political satire has flourished online. An insanely popular device has been the “meme,” a piece of visual content that can be easily shared which uses humor to bring home a message.
Memes can vary from the insipid to the inspired. Whether one cares for their prevalence or not, memes are undoubtedly a part of popular culture today. Much like NBC’s Saturday Night Live revolutionized television satire and humor in 1975, memes have become a powerful vehicle to express personal or political views in a quick, engaging format that can potentially reach millions.
Even though corporations already tightly controlled television in the ’70s, there was no cracking down on SNL’s classic spoofs of politicians and corporate products. Why should today’s content creators face mindless censorship at the dull hands of cold technology?
Gian Volpicelli, writing at Wired, further notes that those who would seek to squelch opposing viewpoints might also use Article 13 as a weapon. “Copyright trolls,” as he calls them, can report violators and attempt to have content they personally don’t like removed based on the ill-defined copyright regulations.
The far greater concern, however, is that “fair use” content will simply be caught up in the automated filter fishing net. Will a “Star Wars” meme mocking Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump be distinguishable as satire by an upload filter that simply detects copyright-protected material in the image?
A silly meme might not seem like much. But it is popular expression – often political – being squelched in the name of corporate obligation. This should be incredibly worrisome to civil libertarians. A free Internet should be first and foremost about an unfettered exchange of information and ideas between people. If a supranational government prevents that free exchange, then it is that government that should be deleted, not the free expression.