Europe's Article 13 Copyright Rule Is a Transatlantic Trade War

(Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

What do Google, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and Twitch have in common? They're all based here. America owns the content platforms Europe enjoys, and in this era of walls, Brexits, and trade wars, Europe is fighting back.

Today the European Parliament passed Article 13, which is part of an updated set of copyright rules that make tech platforms more financially responsible for using copyrighted content. There are a lot of exceptions in the law, including carve-outs for Wikipedia and pretty much all memes, but it's a finger in the eye for companies—especially Google—that rely on automatically aggregating others' content.

I wouldn't be suspicious of the EU's motives if the geographical balance of companies targeted by the new law was, well, a little more balanced. The EU isn't going after Deutsche Telekom, Orange, or EE. Media companies won't be able to target ISPs in this case, only "online content sharing service providers."

Maybe it's a total coincidence that Europe's ISPs are big, Europe-based, tax-paying, politically influential companies, and almost all of the "online content sharing service providers" are American interlopers.

And maybe it's a coincidence that those interlopers are generally seen as tax dodgers in Europe. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Starbucks have all been accused of playing accounting games to wiggle their way out of European tax bills.

There are a few European-based services—DailyMotion is French—but they tend to be much smaller, and the bills Europe exacts are mostly going to be escalated to balance sheets in California.

GDPR Creates Another Wall

What's going on here reminds me a little of what's been happening with US media companies and GDPR. Some companies, including magazine publisher Meredith, have just given up on making their content visible to European users.

They've decided that they don't particularly want or need European audiences, and that it costs too much to comply with Europe's privacy rules for small audiences they don't particularly want. This doesn't mean, if the audience exists, that people will get cut off from that information. In fact, it could lead to more jobs and more opportunity for people actually in Europe.

Here at Ziff Davis, for instance, we work with local, international partners all around the world, which take our articles and reframe them for local audiences, in local languages. The people in those countries get the information they want; local journalists and editors get employed; and local partners pay local taxes.

This isn't an outright call for protectionism. A relatively free trade regime lets us make deals with those local partners to bring PCMag and IGN to those countries. But as with everything, there's a balance.

Companies should be welcome to obey local laws and be good global citizens. But they need to do that. American media companies and platforms have casually been treating other countries as extensions of the US. They should stop doing that.

GDPR, a shot across the bow of American firms in Europe, didn't create a pattern. But now it looks to me like with this second move, Europe is making it clear that American firms demanding to make their own rules will end when they cross the Atlantic.

Is This ... Bad?

Countries (or unions) should be able to levy taxes; countries should be able to decide on their own policies. They should be able to judge their borders. (I oppose President Trump's wall because it's an ineffectual waste of money, drummed up with xenophobic ranting, which exists mostly as racist symbolism, rather than being a thoughtful and compassionate border policy.)

If American content companies can't adapt to European laws, that's an opportunity for new local competitors to arise in Europe. This is actually good for the global economy. More, smaller players that are more responsive to their audiences and pay taxes in their jurisdictions are healthier for everyone than an oligopoly of global giants that think they make the rules.

Tech companies often act like they're above or beyond any greater responsibility to society, whether it's Airbnb hollowing out entire downtowns or Facebook's ham-handed experience in Myanmar. But we are all citizens. In democracies, we should be able to decide what kind of society we want, and multinational companies shouldn't make those decisions for us.

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