A chat with Julia Reda, Pirate Party MEP, on digital surveillance and corporate lobbying in Europe

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tech.eu recently met with Julia Reda, an Member of the European Parliament for Germany’s left-leaning Pirate Party (Piratenpartei Deutschland). Founded in 2006, the German Pirates seek to harness today’s digital revolution to build an open-information society where copyright and intellectual property rules are loosened and made more flexible.

While they have been swept out of power in Germany, Reda is one of the final German Pirates who has retained office, having been elected to a five-year term in 2014. During her term in Brussels, Reda has focussed intensively on data protection and copyright reform. She shared her thoughts with tech.eu in an interview.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: You’ve spoken out for the last year about “surveillance machines” on the internet, which the EU wants major digital companies to use for the purposes of protecting copyright. Could you explain some more?

A: It’s kind of funny: in politics, you seem to have two contradictory ideas about the digital world. On the one hand, you encounter this attitude that algorithms are controlling all our lives and are terrifying and need to be controlled. But at the same time, we seem to also think that algorithms are perfectly capable of weighing fundamental rights against each other and deciding what is and isn’t a copyright infringement.

We see this in the EU’s most recent digital copyright proposals. There, the European Commission says if companies host a significant amount of content online — so, Facebook and YouTube — then they are required to install algorithmic filters that monitor users’ uploads for copyright infringement.

This is fairly unreasonable. Saying that all platforms with large amounts of content are capable of installing filters is a big misunderstanding. On the Internet, there are very small companies running very large platforms. That doesn’t mean they are earning massive profits or even have a sustainable business model: think of Bandcamp, for example.

On top of that, Web companies that already use filters have them mostly to detect copied music. Copyright infringement, however, is clearly a lot broader than that. If you wanted to deal with pictures, text, or artwork, you would need entirely different filtering algorithms. And it’s already been proven over and over that filters for pictures and images are notoriously bad.

So, it’s difficult to be technologically compliant with these mandates. And that’s not to even mention that it’s actually illegal. The European Court of Justice ruled in 2011 that you cannot require a hosting provider to filter and monitor everything that its users upload.

Q: You’ve also said that liability shifting for copyright from the users to websites is harmful for the internet at large. Is that also the story for digital copyright?

A: That’s right. The Commission is saying that all websites which “organize or optimize” uploaded content will become liable for their users’ copyright infringement. To be clear, this is an attack on YouTube and its questionable business practices when it comes to allowing copyrighted music onto its website.

But as it’s worded now, it’s much broader than that. Dropbox, for example, sorts your files alphabetically and provides a search function for your content. Is that already enough “optimization” to justify copyright liability? In the eyes of the Commission, apparently, yes.

This kind of blanket measure would make it impossible to run a website where users can upload content, at least without them making blanket copyright payments to entertainment companies. This could apply to companies like Dropbox, Wikipedia, and even non-commercial repositories of software that handle copyrighted material.

Q: Why, then, pass these rules?

A: I could understand why the Commission wants YouTube and Facebook to pay up to the music industry. The way YouTube filters music on its website through Content ID for copyright infringement is frankly exploitative. But to believe everyone on the Internet should use filters like Content ID is alien to me.

All it would achieve is to normalize the use of surveilling filters, so that the EU can propose using it in other policy areas, like anti-terrorist legislation — where there is right now quite a bit of resistance from privacy and human rights advocates.

Q: You’ve also mentioned that there are some privacy concerns when it comes to online consumer protection in the EU. What’s going on here?

A: There’s already good work carried out by consumer protection agencies in Europe. I support them, even when they tell a website owner that they are hosting illegal content and they need to take it down. That’s not the problem. The problem is that recent changes to consumer protection law are paving the way for consumer protection agencies to force Internet service providers to shut down a website.

To introduce internet blocking, these providers have to build the software and technology in order to make this technically possible. Once that’s there, it’s very easy for government to mandate its use for all kinds of other things. You can see this in Spain, where some Internet service providers already had blockers in place. It was then very quickly extended to websites reporting on the illegal referendum in Catalonia. That’s a lot more problematic from a free speech point of view.

Q: Does this all imply that the government is working to police the Internet?

A: I wouldn’t say the government wants to police the Internet. They actually want the companies to do it for them as much as possible, as it is very difficult to enforce the law online. And so, the government thinks, ‘wouldn’t it be a lot more convenient if we, legally, make a website platform liable for everything that is happening on it? And that can solve our own problem.’

It means we are outsourcing the role of deciding what is legal and illegal — the job of judges and courts — to private companies. So, if a website is made liable for the copyright infringements of their users, they have to decide themselves: is this copyright infringement or not? And remember, a company faces no repercussions if they end deleting too much, while it’s immediately liable for damages if they don’t delete enough. So they will always delete more content than they have to, even if it’s not illegal content.

This is a certain laziness from the side of government, I think. They really don’t want to solve this difficult problem! And the result is overblocking and overcompliance with rules on the Internet. The balances on “fair use” in copyright law are evaporating, as it’s impossible for users to exercise the exemptions on copyright if algorithms are basically taking down everything that looks like a copyright infringement.

Q: So who wins at the end of the day?

You can definitely see that the entertainment industry has extremely close ties to the European Commission. In the same way, the German publishing industry, especially Axel Springer — has close ties to both European Commissioner Gunther Oettinger and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The way that they have been able to have things included in the copyright directive, that haven’t worked anywhere, is remarkable.

It’s not even the publishing industry as a whole who’s behind this. It’s two German publishers who think this is the right thing to do. And they’ve convinced their industry associations, the European Council, and now half of the European Parliament that this is somehow a good idea.

And, to be honest, the tech industry is not helpful. They sometimes seem to play a bit of a two-faced game. Google has very little to lose from this online surveillance provision, as YouTube already has algorithmic filters in place. They might be the only company that would be compliant with these rules as they are written today.

Q: What’s the outlook for tech in Europe?

A: It does seem like we are giving up Europe when it comes to the digital industry. A few years ago, everyone was saying that nobody can compete with Nokia. Now, Nokia is gone. Before that, it was Microsoft, at least until antitrust rules in the EU and the US came down against it.

Still, I do think that was the right kind of policy. We should make sure that growing companies can compete with digital giants. We should not just resign and accept that YouTube and Facebook ‘rule the internet’. That would mean all that’s left to do is passing tailored laws that target their money and give it to specific interest groups, like publishers and record labels.

Q: Has the European Union contributed in a positive way to the environment in Europe for startups?

A: I think that for startups, the freedom of movement in the EU is a complete game changer. It means startups can attract talent from all over Europe without dealing with visa requirements, and that’s a huge advantage.

But when it comes to the regulation of the digital sphere, there’s still a lot to be done. It’s difficult for a company, and even more so if they are working with entertainment media, to be able to scale at a European level.

I’ve heard from many startup investors that they don’t invest in European media startups because the risk of being sued is too high. There’s simply too much legal uncertainty. The copyright laws are so different and complicated that it’s difficult for any founder to say she has created a business model which complies with the law in all 28 EU member states.

What we need is a single copyright law — that doesn’t mean it needs to be weaker or stronger, but it means that if there is a copyright exception in one country, it means the same thing in the rest of Europe.

Q: The US is frequently used as a point of comparison to Europe. How do you see things there these days, especially as net neutrality seems to be on the verge of a rollback?

A: When it came to net neutrality, we used to look to the US as a great example where there was a very clear set of rules. And I think the Net Neutrality regulation that we passed in Europe does its best to live up to these standards. It has some weaknesses, but the biggest advantage we have is that it’s a directly applicable law. It cannot be changed by five people in a room somewhere.

The big problem is that the US has not passed net neutrality into law, and it makes it a lot more fragile and relative easy to change by a new administration, which has put a former lobbyist for Verizon at the helm of the FCC. This kind of private capture of rule-making, it happens in Europe as well, but it’s rarely as obvious as it is here.

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