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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 these schemes propose aim to restrict our right to link to the content and services we choose, restricting our right to link so that traditional media publishers can protect their out-dated business models.

If these new censorship powers are put into place it will fundamentally change the Web.

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 remember the SOPA and PIPA debate, right? 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.

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 proposal basically 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 appear website owners may also need 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 votes in June and July 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, but 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.

We need to stop these proposals everywhere, but it will be much more difficult to do so if this scheme in the EU moves forward.

So what happened?

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.

Specifically, Members of European Parliament (MEPs) rejected a proposal in favour of a ‘link tax’ similar to existing laws already on the books in both Germany and Spain. The 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.

The report has now passed through Parliament, and we were able to stop bad proposals like these ones from appearing in the final text. But our fight is far from over. Now the responsibility for drafting the actual legislation that will update the 2001 Copyright Directive belongs to the European Commission. This body will hopefully take 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 are coming 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 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.