Google is like a ‘digital dictatorship’, says EU copyright rapporteur

Rapporteur Axel Voss from the Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) delivers his speech at the debate on the outcome of negotiations with EU ministers on new rules ensuring that the rights and obligations of copyright law also apply to digital content on the internet at the European Parliament in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 26 March 2019. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

In an interview with EURACTIV’S media partner EuroEFE, German MEP Axel Voss, rapporteur for the controversial European copyright directive, defends the need to combat monopolies on the Internet, including that of the US giant Google.

Voss was in Madrid this week to receive the Association for the Development of Intellectual Property (Adepi) Award 2019, a recognition for who have stood out for their actions in defence of intellectual property.

It was very difficult for the copyright directive to get thought the legislative process, due to intense industry pressure. Do you foresee future challenges to the implementation of the directive? 

What we have done with this directive is, from a legal point of view, relatively simple to apply, but in practical terms, it will probably not be 100% easy.

We might have some inconsistencies in legal issues and practical solutions, but the European Commission is already meeting and discussing with all the actors involved, including digital platforms, users, European Union partners, and the (cultural) creative industry, with the aim of achieving the best practical balance.

So far, what we have done is to achieve a legal solution, but it is true that we are facing practical challenges that still have to be solved, with dialogue.

Will there finally be ‘filters’ or algorithms that ‘control’ the content on the web, and, as some say, ‘censor’ content on the web?

All those filters that some complain about, actually already exist on the Internet. So these criticisms have nothing to do with the reforms. In this, there is no middle ground, or you say “we don’t want copyright” anymore, or you choose to ban platforms. But not everyone is interested in trying to avoid some of these dilemmas. That’s why we have to link something that is no longer really “linkable”.

That’s why these problems arise. And there’s a confusion: if you have a platform where you load content massively, you need to have something installed that can detect copyright-protected content. And that has nothing to do with our reform, hence the confusion. It comes from the giants of the sector, who are giving the impression that it is we (the European legislators) who are creating the “filters” to upload content. That is not true at all. It is part of the general (pre-existing) relationship between copyright and platforms (such as Google, Youtube and Facebook).

And what point are we at now?

We’re trying to strike a fair balance between the creative industry and platform users, but we’re not installing filters or censoring machines. That is already being used intentionally by those platforms.

If you look at the judgement of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), you can see that they have already judged in a certain sense by talking about “active platforms”, which means that those platforms know that they have copyright-protected content in their structures and that they are “legally bound.” That is what we have reproduced in Article 17.

That is why, from a legal point of view, the criticisms (of the alleged filters or censorship) are ridiculous. Everything is (clearly defined) by the ECJ. But that’s something not everyone knows. That’s why I think there’s been such an emotional reaction on this subject.

So, also in this case, are the criticisms that the European institutions are regulating, legislating too much, unfair?

What you mention is very important. We should probably just put some general principles on the table. With that, you can manage issues relating to the digital environment under better conditions, rather than having an excessively detailed, bureaucratic and heavier regulation. But our system, especially on copyright, is not the same as in the UK or the US. In the EU we have limitations and exceptions in all our partners.

Even if we wanted to backtrack on this (the new directive), we would not have had a majority in the Member States. Many of them are proud of their mentalities, structures, histories, copyright traditions. That’s why we had to stay in that system.

Google, for example, has practically closed its news service in Spain (Google News), and they feel mistreated by the EU institutions at this point. Do you have a message for them?

I would say to Google that they should adopt more of the ‘European style’ of news, news structure, and not try to get everything absolutely on their platforms and that no one consults their rivals anymore.

Do they work as a ‘digital dictatorship’, with a monopoly intention?

Yes, they are using their economic power to take everything in their path out of their way. We cannot accept that our press and our press services can be affected in such a way that they no longer receive money because everything appears on the Internet.

Even if they close the news aggregator, they would also be opening a kind of window of opportunity for all European publishers to create something similar themselves, with even more attractive platforms (than Google, for example). Perhaps, in the end, it will be an advantage.

Would European news aggregators, be more democratic?

Probably so. I trust that we will have more competitors in that field. So far, there is a lack of new players in this complex world of digital monopolies.

You have said that this is not the perfect copyright directive. What else could be improved without engaging in open warfare?

I would have improved the situation for publishers. It is not perfect, of course, it can be improved. We had to leave a few points out in order to gain the support of the Council.

What we have achieved now is a very fine balance. But we would like to say to everyone on this subject in Europe: Please respect the copyright of others and please get fair remuneration for everyone who produces content.

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