European Copyright Reform Protests Draw Small Crowds After Online Avalanche (Column)

Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images
European Union member countries' national flags wave in front of the European Parliament on Oct. 12, 2012 in Strasbourg, eastern France. 

Is a protest still a protest if hardly anyone shows up?

The question, which sounds like the name of an album by Country Joe and the Fish, might turn out to be important to the future of the music business -- and perhaps even that of democracy itself.

On July 5, the European Parliament rejected a proposed version of the new EU Copyright Directive that would have made online platforms like Google’s YouTube legally responsible for copyrighted content uploaded by their users, and given news publishers the ability to be paid in some cases when snippets of their work were used online. The vote followed what was billed as a grassroots online campaign, largely organized by Saveyourinternet.eu, which encouraged Internet users to tweet and send emails to their representatives objecting to those provisions. Members of European Parliament received several million emails in total -- so much that some MEPs could no longer look at their accounts.

The directive is now being debated and amended, with another vote scheduled for Sept. 12. And although there's broad agreement on much of the legislation, Article 11 (which would give news publishers the right to be paid for snippets) and Article 13 (which would make online platforms responsible for content posted by their users) have become very controversial, especially online. While some online activists believe that Article 13 would lead to “censorship machines,” the music business and many creators see it as a way to close the “value gap” that lets YouTube pay less for music than companies like Spotify. If the revised legislation passes Parliament, it would move to the European Union "trilogue" process -- final negotiations among Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council -- before member states create laws based on it.

As it turns out, however, at least some of those tweets against Article 13 might not have come from a grassroots movement after all. The day before the vote, Cracker frontman and creators' rights advocate David Lowery pointed out suspicious patterns in the tweets, and he later questioned whether the campaign against the legislation amounted to “information warfare” by big technology companies. He was promptly accused of conspiracy-mongering by activists who assured him that all of the tweets came from real people objecting to the legislation.

Yesterday (Aug. 26), online activists organized in-person protests in several European cities against Article 13, with the goal of showing that they were “#1of1million” -- of those who signed a Change.org petition against the legislation. But the results were underwhelming to say the least: Between 80 and 150 people came to the protest in Berlin, according to various estimates, but most other events seemed to have fewer than two dozen. Based on photographs shared online, it seems that all of the protests combined drew between 500 and 800 people in total. (Those numbers are based on various counts from photos.) Several events in Poland, which generated a significant amount of Twitter activity -- and where thousands of people marched in opposition to copyright provisions in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) six years ago -- probably drew fewer than 100 people combined.

It would be foolish to expect a million people to take to the streets over copyright legislation, and the lack of protest doesn’t prove that Europeans don’t object to Article 13. Certainly, some do. But the actual number seems smaller than the online campaign suggested.

At the very least, the campaign against Article 13 isn’t exactly the grassroots movement its proponents claim. The web site saveyourinternet.eu, at the center of the campaign, is run by the organization Copyright for Creativity -- which has received "main current grants" from the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which counts Google as a member; and also has a "secretariat" run by the lobbying company N-square, which represents Google and other technology interests. We also know that at least some of the emails and tweets against Article 13 came from outside the European Union, since the saveyourinternet.eu site lets anyone email the MEPs who supposedly represent them. I used the web site to send a tweet from “Facebookistan,” for example.

There’s more. According to research by Volker Rieck, who runs the content protection service File Defense Service and favors Article 13, some MEPs received tens of thousands of emails originating from Openmedia.org, a nonprofit organization that receives some support from Google. The (U.K.) Times reported the same. (OpenMedia told the Times it wasn’t influenced by this funding.) The founders of OpenMedia also run New Mode, a company with tools that generate one-click calling, one-click email and a “tweet storm” that its web site says can “make your campaign -- and issue -- go viral.” Every activist wants to make an issue go viral, of course. But the use of these tools, and the poor turnout at yesterday’s protests, raises questions about whether online virality reliably tracks real-world support -- and even whether online virality can be ordered up on-demand.

 

European Parliament should postpone debate on the Copyright Directive for a few weeks, in order to figure out whether the activists who oppose Article 13 are #1of1million, one of a thousand, or -- more likely -- something in between. (If a million Europeans really do oppose Article 13 -- which is certainly possible -- it’s important to know that, too.) Activists and lobbyists on both sides need time to demonstrate how much support they actually have. By any reasonable measure, Article 13 isn’t as apocalyptic as either side makes it out to be -- I see it as a way to ensure creators get paid fairly, but the truth is that both the music business and the Internet will survive whether it passes or not. Life will go on.

But there’s more at stake here than one provision in an EU Copyright Directive. We need to seriously think about why an issue that drew between 500 and 800 protestors in the streets came to seem like a mass movement in the echo chambers of the Internet -- and what that means for activism of all kinds. Even assuming no bots are involved, taking viral politics on Twitter seriously can have consequences that go far beyond technology policy. Just a few weeks after the European Parliament vote, Russia’s foreign ministry launched a Twitter campaign to #FreeMariaButina. At least some of those tweets presumably came from real people who feel very strongly about the issue, but it’s hard to know how many of them there are or how seriously to take them.