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Link censorship is happening across the globe.

Lobbyists for old media publishers have a plan to censor links across the Internet.

The plan is multifocal and moving forward in several domains at once including:

The new regulations aim to restrict our right to link to the content and services we choose, so that legacy media publishers can protect their out-dated business models.

The patterns we have seen so far involve making people legally responsible for the content on a page they link to; applying copyright to the act of linking itself; making it illegal to link to pages that contain copyrighted content without permission; banning certain links, and the trend towards apps like Instagram that stop links to outside their ‘walled garden’ from functioning at all.

These link censorship schemes also run completely counter to what the Internet community has clearly articulated in this crowdsourced plan for free expression online, as well as the Manila Principles, Copyright for Creativity’s Copyright Manifesto, and Article 19’s Principles on Freedom of Expression.

You may remember the SOPA and PIPA debate? How about ACTA? These pieces of legislation were proposals that gave us a look under the hood at how those pushing for extreme copyright laws and enforcement mechanisms wanted to see the Web function.

And what we saw wasn’t pretty. Envisioned by Big Media and supported by irresponsible government policies, these regimes suggested a global Internet censorship scheme that would allow for widespread link censorship online, at the request of powerful interests, with no judicial oversight. Scary.

A Case Study: The European Union

Let’s take a trip around the world, starting with the European Union and the origin story of the Save the Link campaign.

In 2015, legislators in the EU Parliament undertook a series of key votes on copyright policy that threatened to usher in new link censorship schemes that would affect Internet users everywhere.

MEP Julia Reda put forward a positive copyright reform report, but other MEPs, with backing from old media publisher lobbyists, were looking to insert new and very dangerous link censorship powers into the proposal.

Our friends at Communia detailed some of the worst proposals here, but “#2: No freedom to link” stood out as a direct assault on our online freedoms. Essentially, this amendment called for an end to the widely-accepted rule that simply linking out to another page can’t be copyright infringement. It also suggested an entirely new regime for Internet companies that would have to monitor the online behaviour of their users, turning them into the copyright police.

So why was this significant?

Let us break it down: Reda’s original proposal called for the EU to support the right to link, noting that linking is a “fundamental building block of the Internet”.

Yet the above amendment and leaked proposal turn her initiative on its head by mandating that websites monitor user activity, filter content and verify and moderate expression. It would lead to website owners needing to regularly monitor the websites that have been linked out to by users.

The approach above suggests that online services and websites — from major platforms like reddit and Twitter, to your favourite blog — would be liable for the content on the other end of every single link posted using their platform. (A bit more on that here.)

Think about that for a second — you, along with online platforms like Twitter and Facebook — could and would be sued if content on the other end of something you linked to was changed to something illegal. For example, you link to a blog, and the blogger edits the post with a new meme that happens to include (as they commonly do) a copyrighted image.

Should you be liable and face charges because something on the Internet changed? Of course not — and the dynamic nature of links and of the Web in general, make a regime like this unfathomable, and frankly impossible to enforce. Just ask the father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.

Our friends at EDRi provide a great, tangible example to consider in their short paper on the subject, where they examine how links on a UK Government site ended up leading out to a Japanese porn website:

“The UK's Interior Ministry (the “Home Office”) once funded a project called the “Technical Advisory Board" and linked the Home Office website to the project. After a certain amount of time, the project was completed and the contractors stopped updating the website.

Subsequently, the web domain (www.the_project_name.co.uk) was not renewed and became available for purchase. The web domain was purchased and used as the address of a Japanese pornography website. As a result, the links on the Home Office website that previously linked to the project information at www.the_project_name.co.uk was then linking to the Japanese pornography at www.the_project_name.co.uk.

Should the Home Office have been held liable for the fact that something happened that was completely outside its control? Of course not.”

In short, with these link censorship proposals, websites, blogs and online services would need to surveil their users, be responsible for assessing the legality of expression, and remove content (inevitably capturing legal content) users post. This runs completely counter to free expression and access to knowledge.

It will affect Internet users everywhere

The link censorship proposal above was put before a major EU vote in Summer of 2015. With its release to the public it was crucial that decision-makers saw a strong response from the Internet community that we will not put up with these schemes.

While this scheme would affect those in the EU most, it will affect Internet users everywhere. You may not live in the EU but many of your favourite websites do, as does some of the content and technologies that make up the foundation of web services around the world.

For example, SoundCloud an audio distribution site based in Germany — is used by over 175 million unique monthly listeners and countless businesses around the world, while content creators upload about 12 hours worth of audio every minute. If they are forced to censor user links we’ll feel that everywhere. The prospect of costly lawsuits will also kill startups that could be the next SoundCloud.

The EU represents almost 20 per cent of global Internet traffic, and is very influential regarding digital policy. With link censorship proposals already under way in various policy-making bodies nationally and internationally -- decisions made here will have a cascading effect.

So what’s the state of play?

The final vote on Reda’s copyright report happened on July 9, 2015, and Parliament’s decision mirrored what Internet users have been telling us throughout our work on the Save the Link project: we have a right to link, and any regulations that restrict this right will be met with fierce opposition.

Members of European Parliament (MEPs) also rejected a proposal in favour of a ‘link tax’. This specific proposal would have allowed for publishers to charge a fee for using snippets of text to link to content on their sites, monetizing links, and asking aggregators like Google News and Reddit to pay to point to content freely available on their websites.

It was similar to existing laws already on the books in both Germany and Spain

The report passed through Parliament, and we were able to stop bad proposals like these ones from appearing in its final text. But the fight was far from over.

The responsibility for drafting the actual legislation belonged to the European Commission. This body ignored the vote from MEPs and introduced the link tax into the legislation, along with mandatory content filtering. They were introduced under 2 headings:

Article 11

  • Framed as “a new right for press publishers” this Article is EU-policy speak for a right for news owners to also own the short snippets of text and headlines that automatically appear when a news story is linked to.
  • This ownership would last for twenty years, harming not just aggregators, search engines and social sharing but also archives, libraries and museums who would have to pay these costs to list historic articles.

Article 13

  • This proposal would introduce mandatory content filtering, a form of censorship machinery, by demanding that “Sites where users create content must install algorithms to scan and filter, blocking the uploads if it recognises it as content that has been “identified by rightsholders”.”
  • Many creations contain works that are copyrighted, but are still legal - meaning this will result in a huge loss for free speech. For example, the author already has permission; they are critiquing something; it’s for education; it’s for parody etc.
  • There’s huge scope for overreach. All these schemes effectively put bots & algorithms in charge of speech

The Save the Link campaign has been fighting against these plans ever since with wins and losses along the way. We are still fighting, and we urge you to join us. If enough of us stand together, we can prevent these reckless proposals ever becoming law.

Decision makers will hear the strong message sent to them by Internet users: give us copyright rules that facilitate online sharing and collaboration.

Are you ready for some good news?

An international network of organizations and people came together to Save The Link.

Now that these link censorship schemes have been revealed, it’s critical for the Internet community to show clear public opposition to these backwards ideas.

The Save The Link network formally launched on May 6th, 2015 and we need to continue to grow the users in support of the network as much as possible.

We hope this initiative will show decision-makers around the world that censorship plans face fierce opposition, and that we expect them to prioritize free expression online.

Certainly Europe isn’t the only place where we see link censorship being pushed as good public policy. It’s time for Internet users need to draw a line in the sand, and say “enough is enough!” As we monitor new threats to the link, both in Europe and abroad, we hope to build a movement strong enough to stand up to Big Media bullies and industry lobbyists everywhere.

Join us in our fight to kill link censorship, and send a clear message to decision-makers and old media.

We used over 20 links in this post alone to help illustrate the point — now imagine how lost you would feel without them.

To see the most recent stories from Save the Link, visit our Latest page here.