Schaake MEP: Draft US online piracy bills a ‘slippery slope’

Marietje Schaak MEP_Picnik.jpg

This article is part of our special report ICT: Fuelling the economy.

Two controversial draft bills on internet piracy and intellectual property protection, which are currently being examined in the US Congress, are raising concerns among policymakers in the European Parliament. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch MEP, has taken up the issue and voiced her concerns to EURACTIV in an interview.

Marietje Schaake is a Dutch MEP from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). She was recently appointed to draft a report on a European Strategy for Internet Freedom in the World. She spoke to EURACTIV's editor, Frédéric Simon.

The US Congress is currently examining two controversial bills on copyright protection – SOPA and PIPA – which have caused a lot of concerns among the internet industry. Wikipedia has organised a blackout of its website in protest against the bills while Google and Twitter have strongly criticised it. You have recently been appointed rapporteur on internet freedom in the European Parliament. Are there worries among EU lawmakers too?

Yes there is and that's why four weeks ago I wrote a letter with a number of colleagues, businesses and civil society organisations to members of the US Congress to voice our concerns. Because this is a clear case where there is extraterritorial impact of US law and we thought it was important the Americans realise that there are concerns at many stakeholder levels – business, politics and civil society.

In the past four weeks there has been rising visibility of the issue, probably more and more people will know about it. Initially members of parliament were probably unaware of the potential impact for Europe.

What could be the impact on Europe?

Well, we're still seeing changes to the bill being made in the US. But the draft text as we saw it when we wrote the letter is that there would be blocking of websites which are either infringing copyright or facilitating the infringing of copyright. And that leads to great concern because it directly hits the infrastructure of the internet through working with a domain name system which was proposed in the initial text. And this is probably the reason why so many tech companies and big organisations like Wikipedia are concerned because it attacks the heart and the core infrastructure of the internet which is global.

Your worry is also that the bill would target links which may appear as search results, is that right?

Yes, but there is also a section on blocking entire websites. And that may have been taken out now but as this has not been voted through that is what's causing so much concern. And the facilitation part of the draft bill – the alleged facilitation of copyright infringements – is open to broad interpretation and that has got people very concerned here.

Does that mean you're against blocking file-sharing websites which are considered illegal in some countries?

Yes, I am concerned about that because it is a disproportionate and draconian measure. The whole discussion about copyright is very focused on enforcement these days whereas there is a lot of room for reform in order to make sure that the principles of copyright are being met so that creators get their remuneration while at the same time using the opportunities that these new technologies bring. And the whole SOPA and PIPA discussion is actually very much about protecting in the protectionist sense outdated business models.

How can governments address the legitimate concerns of authors who want to protect their creativity with people like yourself who are defending a free and open internet? Can these apparently opposed interests be reconciled?

Yes, in Europe, one of the main problems is the fragmentation of our copyright rules. We have 27 different systems which makes it difficult to leverage the size of the total consumer community – the total audience of Europe – to bring down prices and to facilitate wider access.

When I speak to artists, they make music or movies for those to be heard and seen, not to be locked up behind rules and regulations. And the opportunities of new internet technologies is to bring down the price because it takes away the production of plastic for CDs, for storage and transportation because data can be shared at zero cost and over great distances. So there are great opportunities to bring prices down and that could easily make it more attractive for more people to start listening to different kinds of music, watching different kinds of movies.

And there are successful formulas of web-based startups that are offering streamed music or digital content where the artist actually receives a fair price and audiences can get easy access 24/7.

Do you believe there should be a way of somehow blocking content which is illegitimate on the internet? Or do you believe this is a no-go?

Well it has been considered the ultimate option when it comes to child pornography images. And it has also been mentioned as something that should only be of last resort because people broadly understand that this is a very severe measure.

And my political party D66, my colleague Sophie in't Veld and myself, we've asked questions to the European Commission at the time of the discussion on blocking child porn images because we were very much afraid of a slippery slope, a mission creep. Once you allow the blocking of one type of websites, there are going to be others who will encourage the blocking of other types of websites. So now we're talking about copyright but who knows, there may be people who believe certain content is offensive and would lobby for blocking those as well. And then you have a slippery slope which actually is quite dangerous.

And the European Commission had answered that our fear of that slippery slope was unfounded. But what we're looking at right now in the discussion about SOPA and PIPA is that this slippery slope is happening in front of our faces.

Because to propose the blocking of websites is a very serious and last-resort type of measure. And effectively, it destroys more than it would cure. And as I mentioned, I believe that we should start thinking about the reform of copyright instead of the such aggressive protection of outdated mechanisms, which is the core problem.

So we are actually looking at the wrong frame for dealing with this issue. I would say we need to reform copyright – and yes the principles of getting rewarded for creation are fundamental and my party and I personally feel very connected to the arts and culture as pillars of open society, that's out of the question.

But as a liberal I also believe that there should be free competition and that we should not be in the business of disproportionately protecting one business model over others – and that is what's happening right now.

In countries like France, the government has tested the 'three strikes' approach where users can be blocked from the internet as soon as they get caught for the third time downloading protected material illegally. Does that look like a more reasonable approach to you?

No, this is the worst-case scenario and it is absolutely ineffective. I have made an assessment of the costs that have been put into this and the benefits and it is completely disproportionate.

Would you call on the Commission to take action if these laws are adopted in the US?

Well first, I have reached out directly to US lawmakers because they are the ones looking at this issue. So it is much better for me as a parliamentarian to reach out to fellow parliamentarians on the other side of the Atlantic.

But the bill is still under discussion and I think we have to look at the way checks and balances are working now. The White House has been quite vocal about not accepting any measure that would undermine an open internet and harm internet freedom because that is one of the pillars of US policy. So what we're seeing is a whole different kind of activism and involvement by companies and I hope and I trust that the importance of fundamental rights and an open internet will prevail against certain business interests.

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