This week the EU's controversial "upload filter" plans moved ahead. Opponents of the plans warn that this could "ban memes" and "destroy the Internet" as we know it. If that rhetoric is true, the Internet is actually already being destroyed right under our noses, with surprisingly little pushback.
Online censorship has always been a hot topic and with the EU’s proposed “upload filters” hitting the headlines, it’s at the top of the agenda once again.
The fear of losing the ability to share ‘memes’ plays well on social media. Similarly, many journalists happily use ‘censorship’ in their headlines as, apparently, the fate of the Internet is at stake.
A common theme is that, if the plans are implemented, powerful corporations may soon decide whether you can share something online – fair use or not. While to a degree this fear is warranted, it’s also nothing new.
The ‘censorship machines’ are already up and running as we speak.
YouTube, to give an example, regularly takes down videos for dubious reasons. Some are pulled manually after rightsholders file complaints, while many more are targeted by YouTube’s automated piracy filters.
It’s not clear how many ‘memes’ are killed in the process, but what many people describe as the ‘censorship’ that will ‘destroy the Internet,’ is already fully operational on the largest video sharing platform of all.
But the problem goes even further. Aside from copyright issues, YouTube also demonetizes certain accounts because their content isn’t advertiser-friendly. There is still free speech, to a certain degree, but not all speech can be monetized.
Mind you, this policy is not forced by the EU. It’s regular business practice on the same platform where people are currently sharing their EU censorship warnings. Let that sink in for a minute…
These issues are not limited to YouTube of course. Many other sites have automated filters or approve questionable takedowns.
This week, for example, Twitter removed a video of a cheering kid, because the World Cup was playing on a TV in the background. Also, accounts – including prominent ones – are frequently suspended for alleged copyright infringements which may be fair use.
Similarly, Facebook is known to police its network for possibly infringing content. Like YouTube and others, they use automated filters to spot possibly infringing content, which it takes down before asking questions.
Given the above, there is some irony to the fact that sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are the main venues used by people protesting the EU’s looming censorship machines.
Yes, the EU plans will force smaller companies to spend money on anti-piracy measures, above and beyond what they do now. They will potentially increase liability and uncertainty for startups too. That’s a legitimate concern. But censorship machines are nothing new.
If we use the same rhetoric seen in various “upload filter” protests, the Internet is already being ‘destroyed’ by the Twitters, Facebooks, and YouTubes of this world.
In the current climate, many large platforms will resort to filtering tools or other measures to stop copyright infringements. Their aim is to protect rightsholders, which is understandable, but unfortunately, that can also lead to collateral damage.
The good news is that YouTube, or Facebook, or Twitter, are not the Internet. The Internet will be totally fine. If history has shown us anything, it’s that clever people will come up with new ways to defeat censorship attempts.
While it may sound alien to many, there are alternatives for all these platforms – alternatives that people can host and control themselves. Not to pirate, but to ensure that people can share their legal work without having to worry about overzealous censorship machines.
The real question is, perhaps, if the broader public will ever be ready for these kinds of tools.
Twenty years ago the Internet was a place where a lot of people built stuff, but today it’s mostly a place to consume. There are still plenty of creators and contributors, but these mostly rely on large platforms over which they have no control themselves.
These platforms are convenient, have a broad audience, and even allow some people to make a living. However, they also have power and control over what people are allowed to do and share, memes included. And many (ab)use that power, whether the EU tells them to or not.
Instead of resorting to Twitter activism and YouTube outrage people can also take matters into their own hands, of course, but that would require some work…
Perhaps someone can start a campaign for that?