Filtered Futures: a Conference to examine upload filters after the CJEU ruling on Art. 17

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The recent CJEU decision on Article 17 of the copyright directive has defined a framework for the use of automated content moderation. The Court considers filtering obligations compatible with the right to freedom of expression and information as long as they are limited to use cases that allow for a robust automated distinction between legal and illegal content. In the context of Article 17, upload filters may therefore only be used by online platforms to block manifest infringements of copyright law. The Court leaves it up to the Member States to ensure that legal uses remain unaffected by their national transpositions of Article 17.

The judgment raises a host of important questions for the enforcement of copyright law as well as for the compatibility of upload filters with fundamental rights even beyond copyright law. To discuss these consequences, together with Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte we are jointly organizing the “Filtered Futures” conference on Monday, September 19th 2022, in Berlin. 

We are inviting papers from all disciplines contributing to the conference theme. To present your work at Filtered Futures, please complete the submission form by July 10th, 2022. The form asks for a short abstract of your talk. All applicants will be notified by July 22th, 2022.

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Video recording of the COMMUNIA Salon on the CJEU decision on Article 17

On the 28th of April, we hosted the second COMMUNIA Salon of 2022 to discuss the implications of the CJEU judgment in Case C-401/19, which rejected the request of the Polish government to annul Article 17 and confirmed that this provision can be reconciled with the right to freedom of expression provided that certain users rights safeguards are in place.

The Salon started with João Pedro Quintais (Assistant Professor at the Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam), who presented an overview of the case and the three main takeaways of the judgment, according to his preliminary reading of the judgment. First, the Court clarified that Article 17 follows a normative hierarchy, where the obligation of result to protect user rights or freedoms takes precedence over the obligations of best efforts that exist for preventive measures. Secondly, the ruling makes it clear that ex-post procedural safeguards are insufficient to take care of overblocking; ex-ante safeguards are also required to protect user rights or freedoms. Finally, with regards to filtering measures, it appears that it will be difficult to argue that the judgment leads to a conclusion that is different from the AG Opinion, according to which only manifestly infringing content can be blocked at upload.

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Case C-401/19: CJEU limits the use of automated filters and protects user rights at upload

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Today, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued its long awaited judgement on the compliance of the new liability regime established by Article 17 of the DSM Directive with fundamental rights. Rejecting the request of the Polish government to annul Article 17(4)(b) and the last half sentence of subparagraph (c), the Court confirmed that Article 17 can be reconciled with the right to freedom of expression because the article also provides ex-ante and ex-post safeguards to users rights that limit its impact on the right to freedom of expression and information.

Article 17 contains sufficient safeguards to minimise the impact of upload filters on fundamental freedoms

According to the CJEU, the preventive measures to monitor and block users’ uploads envisioned by Article 17(4) constitute a limitation on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and information of the users of online sharing services, but such a limitation is compatible with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, since all the conditions laid down in Article 52(1) of the Charter are satisfied. 

The Court held that the risks that the use of upload filters entails for the right to freedom of expression and information of users of sharing platforms have been sufficiently addressed by the EU legislator, which laid down sufficient safeguards in Article 17(7), (8) and (9) to protect those rights: 

  • online sharing providers have an obligation of result to not preventively block lawful content (Article 17(7));
  • those providers are only obliged to detect and block content in on the basis of  relevant and necessary information provided by rightholders and cannot be required to block content which, in order to be found unlawful, would require an independent assessment of the content by them (Article 17(8));
  • additionally, and as final safeguard for situations where, despite the obligation in Article 17(7), those providers nevertheless block such legitimate content, users have at their disposal a complaint and redress mechanism as well as out-of-court mechanisms (Article 17(9)).
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Video Recording of COMMUNIA Salon on the AG Opinion in case C-401/19

On Wednesday the 21st of June we held a special lunch salon on Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe’s Opinion in Case C-401/19, the Polish request to annul Article 17 of the CDSM directive.

Moderated by Teresa Nobre, the salon started with Paul Keller (COMMUNIA/Open Future) assessing the opinion in the context of the Commission’s stakeholder dialogue and the ongoing national implementations (from min. 03:11 to min. 12:35 in the recording). While the opinion doesn’t provide for Article 17’s annulment, it provides important clarifications on users rights safeguards against automated, preventive content blocking systems adopted by sharing services providers.

Then Martin Husovec (London School of Economics) took a closer look at the overall strategy of the AG’s opinion while dwelling on its weaknesses and strengths (from min. 14:53 to min. 25.50 in the recordings). He focused on what he described as “AG Øe’s re-interpretation of Article 17” and further analysed the safeguard mechanisms provided in the opinion. 

The final presentation came from Felix Reda (GFF) (from min. 27:50 to min. 40:00 in the recordings) who expressed her disappointment to the fact that AG Øe did not recommend the to reject Article 17. She went on to  identify  a number of  inconsistencies in the parts of the opinion that attempt to reconcile the use of upload filters with the ban on general monitoring obligations. .

The discussion was followed by a Q&A session with the participants (from min. 42:20 onwards).

A look at the AG Opinion on Article 17

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Ex-ante blocking is against fundamental rights
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Last week, Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe at the CJEU issued his opinion in Case C-401/19, the Polish request to annul Article 17 of the CDSM directive. According to his Opinion, the preventive measures to monitor and block users’ uploads envisioned by Article 17(4) constitute a limitation on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and information of the users of sharing services, but such a limitation is compatible with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, since all the conditions laid down in Article 52(1) of the Charter are satisfied. 

In particular, the Advocate General found that the new liability regime established by Article 17(4) respects the proportionality requirement – despite entailing significant risks for freedom of expression – as it is accompanied by sufficient safeguards to minimise those risks:

  • sharing service providers are not authorised to preventively block all content which reproduces the copyright-protected content identified by rightholders, including lawful content (Article 17(7));
  • those providers are obliged to detect and block only content the unlawfulness of which seems manifest in the light of the ‘relevant and necessary’ information provided by the rightholders (Article 17(8));
  • additionally, and as final safeguard for situations where, despite the obligation in Article 17(7), those providers nevertheless block such legitimate content mistakenly, users have at their disposal a complaint and redress mechanism as well as out-of-court mechanisms (Article 17(9)).

While one could argue that the annulment of this problematic provision would be preferable, in light of the recent decision of the CJEU on Joined Cases C‑682/18, YouTube, and C‑683/18, Cyando, these clarifications on user rights safeguards are very much welcome. The views shared by the Advocate General are, in general, aligned with the arguments brought forward by COMMUNIA and other users’ rights organizations as well as the position held by large group of  academics, and if the CJEU decides to follow the AG Opinion it should force countries that have implemented Article 17 without proper user rights safeguards to reverse course. 

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A closer look at the final Commission guidance on the application of Article 17

Today, on the verge of the implementation deadline for the CDSM directive, the European Commission has published its long awaited guidance on the application of Article 17 of the Directive, in the form of a Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. The structure of the final guidance largely follows the outline of the Commission’s targeted consultation on the guidance from July 2020, but there are significant changes to the substance of the final document. The final version of the guidance makes it clear that the European Commission has completely undermined the position it held before the CJEU, that Article 17 is compatible with fundamental rights as long as only manifestly infringing content can be blocked.

In the final guidance, the Commission maintains that it is “not enough for the transposition and application of Article 17(7) to restore legitimate content ex post under Article 17(9), once it has been removed or disabled” and argues that only manifestly infringing content should be blocked automatically, but these “principles” are included in name only. By introducing the ability for rightholders to “earmark” any content that has the potential to ”cause significant economic harm”, the guidance allows rightholders to easily override these principles, whenever they see fit, and to force platforms to automatically block user uploads even if they are not manifestly infringing.

In the remainder of this post we will examine these last minute changes to the guidance in more detail. Before we do that, we will briefly recall the key problem that the guidance was supposed to resolve and the principles that underpinned previous versions of the guidance.

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Open letter on Article 17: Is the Commission about to abandon its commitment to protect fundamental rights?

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Has the CJEU just called the Commissions bluff?
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Civil society groups have placed a lot of hope in the European Commission to limit the dangers to fundamental rights caused by upload filters through the Commission’s Article 17 guidance, which is supposed to help member states implement Article 17 of the DSM directive in a fundamental rights-preserving manner. But with less than two months to go before the implementation deadline, the guidance is still nowhere to be seen. In an open letter published today, twenty user rights organisations are therefore calling on the Commission not to undermine elements of the guidance that would protect users’ fundamental rights by limiting the use of automated upload filters to manifestly infringing content.

Late last week, the CJEU unexpectedly postponed the Advocate General opinion in the Polish case challenging the fundamental rights compliance of Article 17 of the DSM directive by almost three months. Knowing that the upcoming Commission guidance was discussed extensively at the CJEU hearing on the Polish case in November, the postponement could very well mean that the Advocate General wants to see the document before issuing an opinion.

While the Commission has been hinting at the imminent release of the guidance for a few months now, the timing indicates that the Commission precisely wanted to avoid giving the Advocate General time to study the guidance. This does not bode well for the fundamental rights safeguards the Commission is planning to present. Signals are mounting that the delays are the result of intense behind-the-scenes political wrangling aimed at undermining the user rights safeguards to be included in the guidance. 

That’s why, together with 20 other users’ rights organisations who have participated in the EU stakeholder dialogue on the implementation of Article 17, we have sent an open letter to the Commission, raising our concerns about the handling of the final phase of this process. The letter urges the Commission “not to weaken its guidance through open ended exception clauses that seem to benefit particular rightsholders at the expense of users’ fundamental rights” and stresses that “strong ex-ante fundamental rights protections are necessary to meet the obligation of result to protect users’ fundamental rights.” 

The letter further highlights the fact that, by issuing guidance that substantially diverges from the position taken before the CJEU, the Commission would indicate that it is ultimately lacking the political will to ensure that the required fundamental rights protections will be included in national implementations of the directive.

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CJEU hearing in the Polish challenge to Article 17: Not even the supporters of the provision agree on how it should work

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Will the CJEU strike down Article 17?
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On Tuesday, November 10, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) heard case C-401/19. This case is a request by the Polish government to annul the filtering obligation contained in Article 17 of the Copyright in the Digital Single Market (DSM) Directive on the grounds that it will lead to censorship and will limit the freedom of expression and the freedom to receive and impart information guaranteed in Article 13 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Charter).

The defendants in this case are the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. In addition, the European Commission and the governments of France and Spain intervened in the case on the side of the defendants. Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe was also present at the hearing.

Even for astute followers of the discussions around the implementation of Article 17, the hearing contained a number of surprises. While several Member States have been soldiering on with their national implementation proposals with little regard for the fundamental rights implications of Article 17, the hearing showed that the Court is taking Poland’s complaint very seriously and that the compliance of the contested provisions of Article 17 with the Charter is far from evident. Frequent reference was made during the hearing to the recent opinion of Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe in the YouTube and Cyando cases, which is highly critical of extensive obligations on platforms to police the copyright infringements of their users.

On the face of it, the case is about Poland’s request to annul Articles 17(4)(b) and (c) of the DSM directive. Poland argued its case, which essentially rests on the observation that while not explicitly mandating them, Article 17(4)(b) and (c) effectively require platforms to implement upload filters because there are no other effective means to comply with the obligations contained therein. Poland argues that this will lead to censorship and will limit the freedom of information of the users of online platforms.

According to Poland, the key problem with the directive is the move away from active participation of rightholders (as initiators of removal requests in the context of notice and takedown procedures) and instead handing the responsibility of removing infringing uploads over to platforms who will have to develop private enforcement systems to avoid liability for copyright infringement. Because they are not facing any comparable risk when they limit user rights by blocking access to legal content, this creates strong incentives for over-blocking. This in turn will result in censorship and violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and information under the Charter. Consequently, the problematic parts of Article 17 should be annulled by the Court.

All other parties intervening in the case objected to this line of argument and stated that in their view Article 17 does not violate any fundamental rights. However, they presented strikingly contradictory interpretations of what Article 17 actually requires of platforms. There are two distinct lines of argument: The Commission, the Council and the European Parliament argued that that Article 17 contains enough internal safeguards to prevent users’ fundamental rights from being unduly limited. On the other hand, France and Spain argued that some limitations of fundamental freedoms are justified by the objective that Article 17 seeks to achieve. Continue reading

Finally! The text of Poland’s Legal Challenge of Copyright Directive was published

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Does art. 17 violate the right to freedom of expression?
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Earlier this year, Poland initiated a legal challenge against Article 17 of the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) [C-401/19]. The CJEU has finally published the application for this legal challenge. Our member, Centrum Cyfrowe Foundation, has tried to get access to the complaint before using Freedom of Information requests, without success… 

In our opinion, referring the Directive to the Court of Justice is a good step that can help clear controversies concerning Article 17. An independent court will assess issues that in the policy debate are usually dismissed by representatives of rightsholders as fear-mongering or disinformation.

The Republic of Poland seeks the annulment of Article 17(4)(b) and Article 17(4)(c), in fine of the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market. In the alternative, should the Court find that the contested provisions cannot be deleted from Article 17 of Directive without substantively changing the rules contained in the remaining provisions of that article, the Republic of Poland claims that the Court should annul Article 17 of Directive in its entirety.Continue reading

The Copyright Directive challenged in the CJEU by Polish government

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An independent court will assess the Directive
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Copyright not only regulates the interests of creators and intermediaries, but also applies to users’ rights. This was one of our main arguments in the discussion on Article 17 of the new copyright directive, which was often disregarded by our opponents. In our opinion Article 17 is not well-balanced and creates threats to freedom of expression. Such an assessment is shared by others: the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, non-governmental organizations dealing with digital rights, and a significant part of the academy. Now the very same objections will be evaluated by Court of Justice of the European Union.

Last week, the Government of the Republic of Poland filed a challenge to the new Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, specifically Articles 17(4b) and 17(4c). The Minister of Culture and National Heritage explained:

“in our opinion this mechanism introduces solutions with preventive censorship features. Such censorship is forbidden by both the Polish Constitution and EU law – the Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees freedom of expression.”

Interestingly, by filing the charge, the Polish government fulfilled a political promise made during the recent electoral campaign. At that time, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted that the new law is “a disproportionate measure that fuels censorship and threatens freedom of expression.”Continue reading