Is this the internet's 'climate change' moment?

Just over a week ago, an estimated 200,000 people took to Europe’s streets to march for an open internet. Most people demonstrating against the EU’s new copyright directive were young, tech-savvy internet users and creators who have grown up with the internet and are the ones who will build tomorrow’s innovative new business models. Similar to climate change, they demonstrated against decisions they believe would affect their future; and in the case of the Internet, these decisions could jeopardize their ability to participate, create, and build.

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On 26 March, the European Parliament made a clear choice when adopting the new copyright directive: By channeling recent fears about internet disinformation, platform dominance and data misuse, Europe’s policymakers saw content as a battle between the creative and tech industries, not as a fundamental part of user experience. One of the key characteristics of the internet is that anyone can use it — not just to consume content from others, but also to contribute content on existing services, put up a server, and even attach new networks. Article 13 of the European copyright directive will require platforms to use upload filters to filter out copyrighted content. This directive for content and software upload filters doesn’t just increase costs for today’s tech firms, but makes future innovation and competition harder for everyone.

Turning the open internet into an increasingly centralized and curated space will squeeze out tomorrow’s ideas and tomorrow’s winners before they even get their chance. They don’t want the internet to turn from an engine of dynamic economic growth into a vehicle of passive consumption. They’re not alone.

As a result of this legislation, upload filters intended to proactively block copyrighted content and software will be embedded deep in Europe’s networks. Only a handful of companies can afford to build and deploy this technology, if it can be built reliably at all. Innovators of tomorrow’s big ideas will need to license filtering technology from their much bigger competitors. If certain platforms are dominant in today’s environment, legislation like this will only help to further establish their dominance.

And it isn’t clear that such filters can be built reliably. Some of the largest companies have spent fortunes attempting to make reliable content filters, and they employ armies of people to review content and still take down content that is perfectly legitimate. Without artificial intelligence that is indistinguishable from a human, the filters will inevitably prevent useful, good, and perfectly legitimate content from being uploaded. This legislation fails in its own terms.

The engineers and pioneers who invented the internet wrote about the European directive: “If Article 13 had been in place when Internet’s core protocols and applications were developed, it is unlikely that it would exist today as we know it.” 

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The internet’s creators relied on certain design principles that make the internet the tool of endless potential: global reach and integrity and the freedom to build on it without asking anyone for permission. The inventors realized the best ideas were yet to come, so they designed a technical architecture that doesn’t just tolerate growth and change, but depends on it. They created the internet to open up possibilities they couldn’t yet imagine, built by people not yet born. And it worked.

The World Wide Web just celebrated its 30th birthday. It sits on top of the global network of networks designed to trigger innovation, and it’s already older than most of the people who hit the streets to defend it. If we change the internet to lock in today’s ways of doing business, how will those young people create new ideas to transform our world for the better, 30 years from now?

The internet’s ability to be reinvented by every new generation depends on it being a neutral network infrastructure. That means the network’s protocols don’t put technical limitations on the applications that use it. The technologies that make up the internet can be used and re-used to bring life to new ideas. Restricting it to closed, permission-based networks chokes off freedom and crushes opportunity. 

If the commitment of governments to protect their citizens is unequivocal, so should be their commitment to an open internet. Policy makers must ensure that any regulation is F.I.T. for purpose — it is focused, proportionate and mindful of any unintended consequences; it is informed, based on sound evidence and specific on implementation details; and it’s targeted, aimed at the appropriate target, and does not impact the infrastructure of the internet.

The internet is bigger than any single company. It’s bigger than any industry. The EU saw internet regulation as a clash of two schools of thought — content versus technology. They got it wrong. These are not irreconcilable concepts, and getting it wrong will affect future innovation. The very least we owe the next generation of innovators is to keep their possibilities open, not close them down or filter them out.

Dr. Konstantinos Komaitis, based in Geneva, is the senior director for policy development and strategy at the Internet Society. He holds a doctorate on the intersection of law and technology from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK, as well as two masters degrees: in Information Technology and Telecommunications law from Strathclyde, and in International and European law from University of Sheffield, UK. He has a bachelor’s in law from the Aristotle’s University of Thessaloniki. He is the author of the book “The Current State of Domain Name Regulation,” is an arbitrator for the Czech Arbitration Court, and is a TedX speaker.