On March 26 2019, the European union passed the copyright directive — a new, comprehensive set of rules that are supposed move the European copyright laws, written before the internet was a thing, into the digital age. The directive includes two controversial clauses that, depending on who you ask, will either save the internet or ruin it:
- Article 11 is a provision that requires sites that posts links with snippets to pay the site that they are linking to.
- Article 17 (AKA article 13) makes all websites legally accountable for all content that gets posted on them, specifically copyrighted content
It is Article 17 that some view as the clause that will effectively split the western internet in two, because of its incompatibility with its American counterpart. The DMCA (Digital Millennial Copyright Act) notoriously includes a “safe-harbour” clause, which recognizes sites as a neutral third party. If a user uploads copyrighted content, the site should take the content down once it is informed and the resulting dispute is to be resolved between the user and the copyright holder. This discrepancy between European law and American law will make it very difficult for a website to be legal in both jurisdictions. It’s hard to be a platform like youtube that allows everyone to upload whatever they want, when you are legally liable for everything they upload.
From some perspectives, this is a disaster. One of the primary philosophies underlying the internet is the belief that it should operate as a single unified network that connects the entire world. Yet already that philosophy is under siege by the Chinese government: they have created a separate network that operates on vastly different rules than the internet(s) that North Americans and Europeans are familiar with. Three Internets is entirely too many, and only further paves the way for further subdivision. A younger version of me would be up in arms about this. However, something has happened to me between then and now, and the current version of me is finding it harder and harder to care. What I wish to share today is why.
For me, it wasn’t all that long ago when the internet was new and wonderful. I am old enough to remember time before the internet, but I was also still young enough to fall head-first into the techno-utopianism that came with it. It is the defining technology that separated my generation from my parents’ generation, and I just knew that it was going to change the world for the better. See, the running theory was that information was both a universal good as well as a basic human right. Information allows us to learn, explore, collaborate, and create. With access to limitless information we could become better informed, more productive, and more educated members of society. Unfortunately, information is also fundamentally operated and controlled by those in positions of power: governments, large corporations, the rich, basically everyone interested in exploiting the people around them for profit (or votes, which often translates to the same thing). In order for an idea to ever see the light of day you must first ask permission of the publishing platform who controls all access to a potential audience. The internet was supposed to fix this by removing the need for a publisher; instead, users could now find each other directly. So I, and the forums I followed, wanted a free and open internet. Specifically one where information flow was not dictated by the financial whims of a separate for-profit organization, or a government. Unfortunately, it turns out this view, as is so many, is incomplete.
The internet is designed from the ground up to be global. HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), the internet protocol most strongly associated with the the web, models all content as a document. After I upload a document it gets assigned a URL (universal resource locator), and anyone with that URL can request the document and download it. After that, an exact copy of the document has been made and the user is free to modify or re-upload it as they see fit. Other protocols, like email, allows information to move in the other direction. I can send an email to whoever in the world I want, and anyone in the world can send an email to me. The internet is intentionally global, public, and free. This fact did not go unnoticed by the world’s advertisers and they promptly invented spam email, the mathematics of which is horrifying.
Let’s pretend that I am an advertiser and I want to sell pills. Normally, the very act of trying to convince someone to buy my pills costs money. So I am incentivized to make each attempt as likely to succeed as possible. This is because developing the product and the pitch is a fixed cost: I only have to pay it once. However, pitching a product is equally expensive on every person I try it on. So it’s worth it to spend money improving the product so that the pitch becomes less expensive.
But what happens if the pitch becomes free? Now my pitch need only be just good enough that someone on the planet will buy it and every other dollar spent on development is wasted. This is the case with the internet. On the internet there is no cost difference between sending an email to one person or a billion. So the cheaper the message you send and the shittier the product you make, the more profitable it is. Thus spam email was formed, along with clickbait, ad farms, shovelware games, generic inspirational websites, thoughtless blogs, and drop-shipping marketplaces. As long as someone, anyone, is convinced, any further effort you put into your product is like shoveling money into a black hole.
No business venture is so insane that somebody won’t fund it, no product so crappy that someone won’t buy it, and everybody else gets to drown in the billions of individuals screaming into the abyss looking for their audience.
In my younger years, it was easy to ignore the email spam problem because it was hard to imagine someone actually buying penis enlargement pills from an email that doesn’t even bother to spell penis correctly. This assumption is primarily because of a second assumption that forms the core of technological utopianism: that humans are rational animals. Deep down, we don’t want to believe that someone will fall for a scam being operated by someone wearing an orange jumpsuit with the words “I am scamming you” tattooed onto their forehead. Deep down, to assume that information is a universal good is also to assume that, given the chance, no human will ever willingly choose to be exploited. Unfortunately, the internet is endless and even though it contains all of the warnings necessary to avoid such scams, its shear size means if there is any possibility at all of convincing someone, someone will be convinced. Unfortunately, twenty years of being on the internet has only further reinforced this point to me: no matter how absurd something is, someone somewhere will both believe it and, when challenged, will attempt to defend it.
Today, this is the internet. It is a place where every idea, no matter how batshit insane it is, has an audience. Scream nonsense into the infinite abyss of the internet and someone will praise you for it, someone will scream at you for it, and everyone else will try desperately to ignore it. Everything has an audience, and everyone can find whatever audience they are destined to be a part of. Sure, there are a lot of good things on the internet too, but it really only serves to further segregate and polarize it. Those who demand quality will find quality, and those who don’t, won’t. Why deal with someone you disagree with when you can instead swap compliments, or complaints, with someone who agrees with you? The vastness of the internet means you are guaranteed to find them. Just as your opposition is guaranteed to find theirs.
The limitless of the internet means that nobody ever has to be wrong because someone somewhere will always praise you for speaking things as they are. No business venture is so insane that somebody won’t fund it, no product so crappy that someone won’t buy it, and everybody else gets to drown in the billions of individuals screaming into the abyss looking for their audience. We tune out what we don’t like, we tune into the things we do, and everybody, no matter how rational they are, is forced further and further into their own pocket of this confirmation-biased nightmare. Nobody is immune.
When we created a system where information distribution is free, we simultaneously devalued the information itself as well as our own ability to process it. When it costs something to send a message across, we are forced to pick and choose what message we send or whose messages we share with others.
So what went wrong? Well, like so many failed social experiments before it the internet fell into the age-old trap of thinking that “more of a good thing must be a better thing”. Information is powerful, and I still believe fundamentally that access to information is and should be a public right. However, I no longer believe that access to an audience should be as well. When we created a system where information distribution is free, we simultaneously devalued the information itself as well as our own ability to process it. When it costs something to send a message across, we are forced to pick and choose what message we send or whose messages we share with others. This then is the legacy that tech built, and it is its main dogma. Facebook built its entire empire devaluing friendship. Twitter devalue conversation. Uber makes its fortune devaluing transportation. Even 3D printers’ main claim to fame is that they devalue manufacturing.
So my question for opponents of Article 17, who claim that it is the destruction of the internet, is: what does the Article do, exactly, that is such a problem? Well, there are a lot of arguments to be made about copyright and it’s handling, and these are important arguments, but I find myself unable to care. The DMCA has long twisted copyright into a tool allowing large companies to dominate the internet. The damage that US copyright law does to public knowledge is already done. New European rules will not fix this.
In terms of the new European restrictions, legitimate companies with money will buy their way out and legitimate companies without will have a harder time finding audiences. The infinite expanse of cheap and highly distributed content will continue on as if nothing happened. No law can stand in the way of free distribution. However, if it does succeed in splitting the internet in two, it might make the world just a little bit smaller. The biggest difference between young me and older me is that I’m no longer convinced that that is a bad thing.