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Has European legislation just killed The Meme?

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Is new legislation likely to make memes a thing of the past?

Last month, members of the European Parliament voted in favour of article 11 and 13 of the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. Simply put, these laws are like a copyright law and a link tax for the Internet. Of course, the reality of these laws is much more nuanced than that and protecting intellectual property is of course important - but this can get quite murky on the internet.

While this copyright directive is quite broad, the most controversial articles are 11 and 13 - which were unsurprisingly trending globally on Twitter when MEPs voted in favour of them last week. There was a mixed reaction but sentiment from internet natives definitely skewed to the negative side.

Article 11, or the ‘link tax’ as it is more affectionately known aims to ensure that news aggregators and platforms - take large social media platforms for instance - would have to obtain a license from and pay the publishers whose links they publish. Additionally, linking to certain websites using more than one word from the article is prohibited unless you are using a service that bought a license from the news site you want to link to.

Critics of this law claim it will lead to censorship in what sorts of links can be shared and publicised, and that smaller fringe publishers who don’t have deals with these large social media giants will suffer. This will also likely impact the free flow of information on the Internet when it comes into play. That said, larger music and media publications may benefit from an additional source of revenue when running ads via these social media websites as they would make money from the links people click on.

While these mega social media corporations may be forced to pay out for link clicks, what does this mean for link click ads on these platforms? They will likely become more expensive, as a way to make the money back. Furthermore, if more than one word from the websites cannot be used, will this lead to even more disinformation and click bait? Will website owners have to mark their websites as ‘free to link to’? All of this is possible. In fact, several questions regarding this entire law arise, of course, but upon first glance this looks quite murky.

Article 13 of the directive is more of a general copyright law which shouldn’t really affect those in the digital and social media marketing industry as long as they use content which they have the license to use. This law, however, is being referred to as the ‘meme ban’ - which can have catastrophic effects on the Internet and meme consumption.

Memes are traditionally based on taking something from another context and slightly tweaking it to fit another context. Meme creators never ask for permission from the source before they are published, and are usually made by the general public. Historically, parody has been exempt from these kinds of laws, but we’re unsure what this would mean in the online space especially where memes are concerned. They're viral by nature and even attempting to cap that seems impossible. Additionally, how this article of the copyright directive will be implemented is also unclear. Many say this will force social media giants to put up copyright filters before content can be published. Some have argued that this could be another form of censorship.

These copyright laws have been a long time coming as governments have been struggling to catch up with legislation for an incredibly fast-moving new space. Proponents of this law believe that this will lead to a fairer Internet, where copyright law is enforced on social media and whereby corporations such as Facebook and Google will be forced to share their wealth with news companies. What is difficult though is how these laws will be implemented and which websites these social media companies will buy licenses from.

Wherever you may stand on the issue, there will likely be many teething issues if and when these laws are implemented. It is also quite likely that AI will be used to help implement these laws but the success of this really depends on how advanced the AI filters are.

It's also worth noting that this would be a European law and will apply to the EU, and it remains to be seen what will happen to the UK once Brexit actually happens. The Internet however is difficult to govern and borderless.

The World Wide Web is built on making the world smaller and connecting people, without borders. The Internet is a difficult world to regulate and this law is still in its youth - but issues surrounding how to regulate censorship of a system built on the free movement of information will continue to arise. It is up to us to ensure we have all the information and that we know how these new laws may potentially affect us - as users of the Internet as well as those that aim to benefit from it.

Zahra Hasan is a social media strategist at Wilderness

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