This year, legislators had finally caught on to the fact that this whole internet thing might just take off and was evolving faster than the law could. It was time to set down some ground rules for what is and isn’t ok for companies to do with the abundance of data that we can’t really avoid giving them, and thus GDPR was born. But the EU didn’t stop there.
This newfound drive to tackle (relatively) newfound online issues has now been directed at publishing and journalism. Last month the EU proposed a new copyright law , which shows a growing concern over how to rein in plagiarism, “fake news” and the power of internet giants like Google and Facebook. The proposed law wanted to make any site that published content (Medium, Facebook, WordPress blogs etc) responsible for applying copyright filters like the ones used by YouTube, and ensure that authors are are paid for their content by those who share it. The proposal was written with the intention of encoding accountability into the business practices of tech tycoons.
What are the implications of copyrighting everything on the internet?
Even though this proposal was rejected, it does show a worrying lack of understanding from EU legislators about how publishing content online works. Far from curtailing the likes of Google, critics argue that the law would have put many smaller websites out of business by insisting that they use expensive automated filters for everything they post. It also showed a lack of clarity around what content it actually refers to: would Twitter have to block every news snippet that users tweet? Would Facebook have to find and block any song lyrics statuses? Will dating apps have to screen every photo uploaded onto profiles, and if so, what would that mean for our privacy?
“People will run into trouble doing everyday things like discussing the news and expressing themselves online. Locking down our freedom to participate to serve the special interests of large media companies is unacceptable,” said German lawmaker Julia Reda in a statement. In fact, by quoting Reda from an article in Reuters, would I be in breach of copyright even though I’ve credited them? There didn’t really seem to be any clear answers, only a general consensus that “something” must be done.
Unexpected consequences and loopholes
As well as a legal minefield and the necessity for automated filters, the vagueness of the proposed law would have had all kinds of loopholes that could have been abused. All someone needed to do, either for the purposes of trolling or baiting for litigation, is upload unprotected content to a platform – Medium, WordPress etc – and copyright it. They then have the rights to it. Even more worryingly, it could have created a legal barrier preventing satire and parody if the source material is copyrighted simply by existing on the internet. Sacha Baron Cohen’s spoof ‘Truthbrary’ collates some of the wildest conspiracy theories on the internet, but under the proposed copyright law he would not have had the right to re-publish them in order to shine a light on content that is dubious at best and dangerous at worst.
Is journalism ready for a changing digital landscape?
Although this law was rejected, digital publishers still need to be on their toes. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal and the discovery of Russian troll farms pumping out inflammatory clickbait has made Facebook twitchy over how it hosts content. Facebook – a regular source of news for 45% of Americans – has responded to these scandals and to its falling number of users by shaking up its algorithms. News content will be demoted in Facebook feeds in order to make time on Facebook “more valuable.” Even without legislation, this means that journalists and content creators, especially those that produce video content, can expect less eyes on their pages. In a way, this change highlights a vulnerability for publishers using Facebook to reach their audiences: you have no foresight or insight into changes it’s going to make. The goalposts can be moved at any time, and it’s up to publishers to find a method of getting their content out into the world while balancing that exposure with the need to copyright their work.
Moving away from Facebook might not be such a bad thing for journalists. Motherboard, an online magazine launched by Vice, has recently welcomed the changes to the Facebook algorithms. “I hope that I nor any other journalist will have to care for one second longer about Facebook’s news feed. More importantly, journalism that is engineered to be viral, to be liked or picked by an algorithm is not journalism, it’s marketing,” writes Jason Koebler. Rather than relying on creating newsfeed-friendly sensationalism, the future of quality, fact-checked journalism may well be the subscription model. Deloitte predict that by the end of this year, 50% of adults in developed countries will have at least two online-only media subscriptions. The New Yorker, Wired and The Atlantic all have a healthy sized pool of subscribers and others may well follow in Netflix-ifying access to their content.
However publishers meet the challenge of digital readership, one thing is for sure: change is coming. Whether it takes the form of new legislation, changing algorithms on the behemoth platforms, or trends in how readers are accessing content, publishers will need to get creative. Lawmakers’ hands-off attitude to the digital world will not and cannot last for long.
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