Can we please keep the speculative fiction out of censorship discussions?

Posted November 6, 2018
By John Degen

What is and what isn’t censorship? It’s hard for me to believe this discussion is even necessary at this particular moment in history. 

The world is seeing a sadly not-unprecedented rise of extreme populism that uses demonstrably false information as its rallying call. As I write this, a democratic superpower is dithering in its response to what appears to be the brutal murder of a journalist, killed because of his published views and opinions. In fact, the rise in violence aimed at journalists around the world, much of it resulting in death, is terrifying and chilling. You want to see actual censorship and suppression of speech in action? These days, you don’t have to look far.

I’ll tell you what isn’t censorship. Writers demanding protection for the commercial product of their own free speech is NOT censorship. Copyright law is NOT censorship. Those who persist in trying to force an equivalency between the reasonable and globally accepted rule of law around content ownership and brutish repression do nothing but confuse and distract at a time when we should have a laser focus on instances of real censorship.

Recently, the European Parliament passed a Copyright Directive aimed at harmonizing various features of copyright law across the member states of the European Union. European artists (including Sir Paul McCartney) and cultural organizations lined up in favour of the Directive’s well-thought out suggestions for strengthening protection of cultural product, while entrenched tech concerns fought hard against any suggestion that they might have to submit to reasoned regulation.

Opponents of Europe’s Copyright Directive were mobilized and led by German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda, whose website remains full of dire warnings about how stronger copyright suppresses speech. Pause briefly to let that sink in. A politician whose party and voting base is dedicated to piracy — the illegal access, control and distribution of artistic expression against the express wishes of the artists who create and own those expressions — took it upon herself to lecture all of Europe about free speech. 

The lecture was filled with ridiculous fear-mongering about the rise of censorship machines taking over the internet, and robotically stomping on freedom. In fact, predictably, the European Copyright Directive is said by its opponents to spell the end of the internet as we know it. It seems clear we can’t have a nuanced, rational discussion about much at all these days, not even relatively boring internet regulations. Everything is catastrophe and fake populism.

In the middle of an internet policy debate, the cause of free expression was expropriated, twisted, and contorted. As has happened before in copyfights, the spectre of censorship was irresponsibly raised by those opposing stronger copyright law. In this instance it’s argued that tech platforms expected to play a greater role in protecting content would be forced to introduce automatic upload filters, and those upload filters would make mistakes, flagging legitimately original content as infringing. The argument concludes that such a flag would be an act of censorship.

I really do feel we’re past the sell-by date on the ridiculous false equivalency that has a law protecting free expression (which is what copyright actually is) somehow blamed for causing damage to free expression. But since these strange claims have made the news again, let’s walk through them.

There is no requirement in the European Directive for automatic upload filters; only for greater responsibility on the part of platforms. Various systems of flags on content already exist on the internet, and no-one credible is yelling “censorship.” Europe simply intends to shift some of the responsibility for those flags from the content creators themselves to the platforms. 

False positive flags happen. But those are honest mistakes, not organized oppression, and content uploaders mistakenly flagged have recourse to an appeal process. The aim of stronger copyright policy is to allow all legitimate content, and to exercise some control over infringement of the rights of artists. No robots, no out of control machines stopping the voices in our throats, no censorship. 

In a devious twist, tech sector lobby organizations purported to represent speech that actually was not – delivering to lawmakers waves of spam messages and fake tweets designed to make it look like a large segment of the population was up in arms about copyright. When actual street protests against the Directive eventually emerged, they were pathetically small and clearly driven by the piracy agenda. Without the pirates and tech giants running that particular show, it’s fair to wonder if there would be any significant real opposition to the Directive at all.

Europe now leads the world on strong support and protection for cultural product. Those who scream censorship have their own private reasons for fighting such supports, but a love for free speech is not one of them.