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 Julia 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).

Video Recording of COMMUNIA Salon on the Article 17 guidance and the launch of the Eurovision implementation tracker.

On Monday the 7th of June – the day of the implementation deadline for the DSM Directive – we held a special COMMUNIA Salon to mark the entry into force of the Directive, to assess the implementation process being made in the 27 Member States and to discuss the Article 17 implementation guidance published by the Commission just before the entry into force of the Directive. 

The Salon kicked off with Teresa Nobre and Dimitar Dimitrov presenting our ongoing work supporting user rights’ advocates across the EU Member States to ensure a user rights’ friendly implementation of the Directive into national legislations (from 1:11 to 18:13 in the video recording). This was followed by the launch of the Eurovision DSM Contest, a new website which tracks the implementation progress for each Member State. 

The second part of the event (from 20:00 in the recording onwards) consisted of a discussion on the Commission’s Article 17 guidance. Paul Keller opened the discussion by noting that, while the guidance establishes important user rights’ safeguards that put into question the implementation approach chosen by Member States – most notably by France and Denmark –, it also contains a massive loophole by allowing rightholders to “earmark” their content as economically valuable.

Julia Reda (GFF) followed up by comparing the guidance to the recently adopted German implementation law. She argued that the German law seemed to be largely in line with the principles established by the guidance and highlighted that the German rules, for certain types of “high-value” content, are highly targeted and limited. In this light, this is much less problematic than the “earmarking” mechanism introduced by the Directive. 

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Article 17 implementation guidance: Strong user rights safeguards with a giant loophole

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Final guidance undermines users' rights safeguards
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Today, on the last day before the implementation deadline for the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive, the European Commission has finally published its long overdue implementation guidance for Article 17 of the Directive. The guidance, which marks the end of a stakeholder process that started in October 2019, is supposed to provide Member States implementing the Directive with guidance on how to reconcile the contradicting objectives contained in Article 17 of the Directive. It comes at a time where only a handful of Member States have implemented the Directive into their national law. 

In the final version of the guidance published today, the Commission will require Member States to include ex-ante safeguards for user rights in their national implementation legislation. In doing so, it provides support to the implementation approach taken by Germany (and discussed in Austria and Finland), while making it clear that Member States who have limited themselves to merely re-stating the provisions of the Directive (such as France, The Netherlands and Hungary) will need to include such additional safeguards (more on this below). 

Unfortunately, and confirming the suspicions that we had expressed in our recent open letter, the final version of the guidance walks back the strong commitment to protect users’ fundamental rights that the Commission had shown earlier in the process. As a result of relentless pressure from the entertainment industry, the final version of the guidance contains an “earmarking” mechanism that is designed to allow rightholders to override safeguards against automated blocking of user uploads that are not manifestly infringing, by claiming that a use of their works “could cause significant economic harm”. This provision is ripe for abuse by rightholders and undermines the relatively strong principles for safeguarding users’ fundamental rights, which the guidelines require Member States to include in their national implementations (see our detailed description of how the “earmarking” provision undermines the principles of the guidance here). 

The “earmarking” mechanism was added to the guidance in the last three months, in closed-door deliberations of the Commission and in reaction to massive pressure from rightholders. This back-room dealing of the Commission in the last months stands in stark contrast to the transparent and balanced way in which the Commission had handled the initial stages of the stakeholder process. After a series of public stakeholder dialogue meetings, the Commission had released a remarkably balanced consultation draft of the guidance in July of last year. The Commission then used the principles outlined in the draft to defend the legality of Article 17 before the CJEU, only to agree on a final version that substantially undermines these principles, behind closed doors and without further consultation of the stakeholders involved in the process. 

This conduct abuses the stakeholder process that the Commission was legally required to hold as part of the hard fought-political compromise embodied in Article 17. Where the Commission initially lived up to its role as a neutral steward of the legislative compromise, it has abandoned this role unilaterally, changing the final result based on massive political pressure from rightholders.

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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

Taming the upload filters: Pre-flagging vs. match and flag

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How to limit the damage filters can do
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One of the most important elements of any implementation of Article 17 will be how platforms can reconcile the use of automated content filtering with the requirement not to prevent the availability of legitimate uploads. While most implementation proposals that we have seen so far are silent on this crucial question, both the German discussion proposal and the Commission’s consultation proposal contain specific mechanisms that are intended to ensure that automated content filters do not block legitimate uploads, and that uploads are subject to human review if they are not obviously/likely infringing. 

In order to achieve this objective, the German discussion draft published in June relies on the idea of “pre-flagging”: users would be allowed to flag uploads containing third party works as legitimate. Platforms would then be prevented from automatically blocking pre-flagged uploads unless they determine that the flag is incorrect because the upload is “obviously infringing”. 

By contrast, the Commission’s implementation guidance consultation proposes a “match-and-flag” mechanism: if upload filters detect the presence of a third party work in an upload and the use is not deemed to be “likely infringing”, then the uploader is notified and given the ability to state that the use is legitimate. If the user flags the upload as legitimate, the platform will have to initiate a human review of the upload, which remains available from the moment of upload until the review has been concluded. This type of mechanism was first suggested by a group of copyright academics in October of last year. It is also at the core of the proposal that we had presented during the last meeting of the stakeholder dialogue.

Both approaches provide a mechanism that limits the application of fully automated upload filters (while implicitly acknowledging the fact that many platforms will deploy upload filters). In the Commission’s proposal, filters are limited to making a pre-selection (“is the upload likely infringing?”); in the German proposal, they can only operate on unflagged content and to filter out “obviously incorrect” pre-flags.

Convergence on “match-and-flag”?

Both approaches have been criticised by rightholders, who claim that they undermine the “original objective of the directive” without providing alternative proposals on how automated filtering can be reconciled with the requirement not to block legitimate uploads. In addition, the German discussion proposal has also been criticised by platforms such as Google and Facebook. The platforms are arguing that giving users the ability to pre-flag every single upload would be impractical and would likely lead to substantial numbers of unnecessary (where the content in question is already licensed) or unjustified (users making excessive use of the pre-flagging tool) pre-flags, which would make such a system impractical to operate at scale. Continue reading

A step in the right direction: Our response to the targeted consultation on the Article 17 guidance

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Thanks for listening!
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Yesterday we submitted our response to the European Commission’s targeted consultation on the Article 17 guidance. As we have explained previously, with this consultation the Commission was seeking feedback on its initial ideas for the Article 17 implementation guidance, which the Commission intends to publish before the end of the Year. The document is intended to provide Member States with guidance on how to balance the conflicting requirements of Article 17 (preventing copyright infringements while ensuring that legal uses are not affected) when implementing it in their national legislations.

As we said in our initial analysis, we were very happy to note a clear commitment of the Commission to maintain the delicate legislative balance of Article 17 that reflected many of the constructive contributions that have been made by stakeholders across the spectrum during the dialogues. In general, we consider the Commission’s proposal a step in the right direction and this is reflected in our response to the consultation. Unsurprisingly, organisations representing rightholders have a completely different reaction to the proposal and have already started a campaign to convince the Commission into abandoning its approach. Continue reading

Commission consultation on Article 17 guidance: User rights must be protected at upload

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Legitimate uses must be considered at all times
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At the end of July the Commission published a long awaited “targeted consultation addressed to the participants to the stakeholder dialogue on Article 17 of the CDSM Directive“. With this consultation the Commission makes good on its (pre-covid) promise to “share initial views on the content of the Article 17 guidance” with the participants of the stakeholder dialogue. Nestled in-between 18 questions, the consultation document provides a detailed outline of what the Commission’s guidance could look like once it is finalised.

While we have been rather sceptical after the end of the six meetings of the stakeholder dialogue meetings, we are pleased to see that the initial views shared by the Commission express a genuine attempt to find a balance between the protection of user rights and the interests of creators and other rightholders, which reflects the complex balance of the provisions introduced by Article 17 after a long legislative fight.

In the remainder of this post we will take a first, high level, look at the Commission’s proposal for the Article 17 guidance, what it would mean for national implementations and how it would affect user rights.

Two welcome clarifications

With the consultation document the Commission takes a clear position on two issues that were central to the discussions in the stakeholder dialogue and that have important implications for national implementation of Article 17.

The first one concerns the nature of the right at the core of Article 17. Is Article 17 a mere clarification of the existing right of communication to the public, as rightholders have argued, or is it a special or sui generis right, as academics and civil society groups have argued? In the consultation document the Commission makes it clear that it considers Article 17 to be a special right (“lex specialis”) to the right of communication to the public, as defined in Article 3 of the 2001 InfoSoc Directive, and the limited liability regime for hosting providers of the E-commerce Directive. 

What sounds like a fairly technical discussion has wide ranging consequences for Member States implementing the Directive. As explained by João Quintais and Martin Husovec, now that it is clear that Article 17 is not a mere clarification of existing law, Member States have considerably more freedom in deciding how online platforms can obtain authorisation for making available the works uploaded by their users. This should mean that they are not constrained by the InfoSoc Directive. Therefore, mechanisms like the remunerated “de-minimis” exception proposed by the German Ministry of Justice that would legalise the use of short snippets of existing works are permitted and covered by the concept of “authorisation” introduced by Article 17. Continue reading

Article 17 Stakeholder dialogue: COMMUNIA input paper

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Our principles for the the Commission guidelines
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Given the ongoing health emergency, the European Commission’s stakeholder dialogue on the implementation of Article 17 of the Copyright Directive is currently suspended. The 7th meeting of the stakeholder dialogue, which was originally scheduled for Monday of this week and where the Commission was expected to “share initial views on the content of the guidelines”, has been cancelled and it is currently unclear how and when the stakeholder dialogue will be resumed. In the meanwhile, the European Commission is continuing its work on the guidelines.

While we are waiting for news on the future of the stakeholder dialogue we have produced an input paper for the Commission (pdf) that summarises our observations from the stakeholder dialogue so far and formulates a number of principles that the Commission should take into account when drafting its guidelines. In line with our initial principles, the input paper focuses on licensing, transparency and procedural safeguards for users’ rights. The paper builds on the model that we had presented during the last meeting of the stakeholder dialogue

Specifically, we are asking the Commission to include the following in the Article 17 implementation guidelines: 

  • Recommend to national lawmakers to fully explore all legal mechanisms (including collective licensing with extended effect, mandatory collective management schemes and other non-voluntary licensing schemes) for granting OCSSPs authorisation to have in their platforms copyright-protected works and other subject matter uploaded by their users.
  • Require that all ownership claims made in the context of the measures required by Article 17 must be made fully transparent to allow public scrutiny and prevent unjustified removals or blocking by rightholders claiming ownership of works that they do not own.
  • Require that OCSSPs publish statistical information on the number of removal/blocking actions as well as the number of complaints and the resolution of complaints arising as the result of such actions.
  • Requires that in cases other than obvious infringement and in order to prevent automated measures from affecting lawful uses, users must have the ability to override all automated actions before the blocking/removal takes effect.
  • Require that in case of obvious (“prima facie”) infringement uploaded content can be automatically blocked/removed under the condition that uploaders have the ability to easily and effectively challenge such blocks/removals.
  • Require that users must be able to rely on all existing exceptions as grounds for challenging removal/blocking actions and must be able to dispute the ownership claims on which an action is based.

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