Copyright Blown Out of Proportion (or: the Great Youtube Pivot)

How should Big Tech deal with fake news, hacked elections, propaganda and hate speech? This is one of the biggest issues in tech policy for the moment. The general assumption is that a service created for, let’s say, checking out girls, can be abused to promote genocide. Or maybe you want to share party videos online and end up amplifying white supremacists. The issue then is what Big Tech should do about it, how to mitigate these unintended effects. Accidents brought about by maybe naïvety or rush to innovate. This is a debate of great importance, in fact one of the biggest challenges for the democratic system. But behind that hides a deeper problem: what about when Big Tech intentionally uses it platforms to push its own agenda? Fake news by design…

Case in point: EU copyright reform. Wikipedia blacked out in Poland and Italy in protest. Silicon Valley carried out the greatest astroturfing campaign known to man. And now this: Youtube mobilises its viewers against the proposal. Keep in mind: this is not about climate change, world hunger, the rise of authoritarianism or the refugee crisis. It’s about a change in copyright law. Yes, the world has lost its sense of proportion.

The playbook is familiar. Big Tech used it to stop ACTA in the EU. SOPA/PIPA in the US. It almost succeeded with the copyright vote in European Parliament this summer. Use the services to mobilise the users, provide them with easy tools to reach out to policy-makers. Not all of it is astro-turfing, many of the e-mails and calls are from real people. Except most of them only hear one side of the argument. The other side does not control niche monopolies allowing them to send their message unfiltered to Billions of users. And those media organisations who come anywhere close would not use their channel to promote their own agenda because of press ethics (or rather; thanks to press ethics). If you are not afraid of information monopolies yet, think about what the public sphere will be like if Big Tech continues to starve out competing media and further increases its dominance over our attention. If this is what it looks like for copyright, imagine what it would be if some policy-maker dared do something that could really change things. Such as anti-trust, privacy or data ownership. Who said something about joining the resistance?

Does Youtube have a point? Not really, the concerns about memes, parody, mash-ups etc have been addressed in the political negotiations. The Youtube “creators” need not worry, they own the content they create and are free to do what they like with it. There is no need for Youtube to take down all user generated content, it only needs to get licenses or use better methods to stop users from spreading other people’s content (oh, they can if they want to, easily – ever ask yourself why there is no porn on Youtube?). Make no mistake, this is not about memes or streamers: this is about commercial-scale distribution of music and movies without the consent of those who made it.

Youtube claims to support the goals of Article 13. But does it really? The policy aims to close the “value gap” which means licensed music services – like Spotify – pay maybe ten times more than Youtube for the same content delivered to the same audience. The difference is with Youtube it’s uploaded by the users rather than the service itself. Does Youtube really support that goal? Does it really want to pay fair compensation for the content it monetizes? You tell me.

Youtube proudly claims to have paid 5 Billion Euro to the music industry “over the years” (Youtube started in 2005). Except that’s only about one third of the turn-over in a single year for recorded music. Youtube is the second most popular website in the world ( is #1). 5 Billion in 13 years? Peanuts.

The Copyright reform won’t hurt the internet. It might however hurt Youtube’s business. Maybe Youtube’s business model cannot support paying fair dues for content. Tough luck. Time to change the business model. There is no shame in that. Startups do it all the time. It’s called a pivot.