Internet gurus and media activists, including “fathers of the internet” Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, took a stand against the information technology copyright reform project under discussion in the European Parliament. Their assessment defined the reform as a potentially censorial juridical machine with the goal of re-establishing order in the chaotic flow of knowledge on the internet, which is to say: under the control of companies.
Their testimony before the parliament went almost unnoticed, as if there shouldn’t be a spotlight on the plot to control the information that’s shared in and out of cyberspace. The reform project proposes the creation of a Digital Single Market (DSM), and more strict surveillance of data management, with possible negative effects on press agencies, companies and startups.
In this way, intellectual property continues to play a political role in the definition of power relations at the social and economic level in the great change of globalization. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, the passage from the GATT (the rules of international trade hinged on the system of state relations) to the WTO saw the extension of copyright, patents, trademark protection to software, knowledge and the genome of living beings. Consequently, the great crisis of 2008 combined with the rise of China as a superpower, the troubled decline of the American empire and the great transformation of the internet into a global medium of goods, capital and knowledge flows saw a renewed leadership of supranational political actors (European Union) and regional governance bodies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
As far as intellectual property is concerned, the United States—a strong legal machine—and the European Union play a leading role, even if they express divergent approaches. For example, the EU’s new privacy regulation was significant in conjunction with the explosion of the Cambridge Analytica affair. The position of the EU with regard to Facebook’s responsibilities in the transfer of personal data subsequently used to condition national parliamentary elections and national referendums (Brexit) was clear-cut. Either Facebook changes its behavior or harsh European sanctions will be imposed on Mark Zuckeberg’s company.
As far as data shift is concerned, the European Union has also been one of the most important parts to the TTIP project, which has been shelved due to the election of Donald Trump to the White House. However, the European Parliament is currently discussing a controversial draft legislation on the responsibility of internet companies for copyright protection.
An open letter to the European Union from researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs criticized the Article 13—renamed the “upload filter”—which regulates the role of server operators. Supporters of the law want a database of copyright material to be drawn up and continuously updated. They say operators should take action if someone uploads or downloads video or audio material to digital platforms that is copyrighted. According to the signatories of the letter, this would transform the the internet, an engine of innovation, into a desert.
Among the signatories of the letter are personalities such as Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web; Vint Cerf, who helped develop TCP/IP transmission protocols; Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia; and Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. In other words, people who could be considered as the spiritual guardians of the internet.
Aside from Article 13 is Article 11, dubbed as “the link tax,” which provides for a payment to copyright owners each time you use pieces of articles or other information materials on the internet. This is a rule that mainly targets search engines that display snippets of articles or entire videos on their search pages. For the European Union, this would ensure respect for copyright, which is, of course, the prerogative of media companies.
The European debate will continue, but it is clear that some of the spotlight has been shone. And it is not certain that intellectual property can continue to be used with impunity to define power relations in favor of companies.