In recent years, many copyright holders have grown frustrated with pirates copies of their content (re)appearing on hundreds of online platforms.
This problem is not restricted to pirate sites, but also affects other services where users can freely upload content, including Dropbox, Google, YouTube, and Facebook.
In an attempt to streamline these takedown procedures the European Commission published a detailed set of guidelines today. Their communication titled “Tackling Illegal Content Online” includes a comprehensive overview of how illegal content, including piracy, should be dealt with.
The recommendation, of which a non-final copy leaked earlier this month, is non-binding. However, future legislative measures are not ruled out if no significant progress is made.
One of the motivations to release the guidelines is to define clearly what a good takedown policy would look like. A harmonized and coherent takedown approach is currently missing in the EU, the Commission notes.
“A more aligned approach would make the fight against illegal content more effective. It would also benefit the development of the Digital Single Market and reduce the cost of compliance with a multitude of rules for online platforms, including for new entrants,” the recommendation reads.
One of the suggestions that stand out is “proactive” filtering. The Commission recommends that online services should implement measures that can automatically detect and remove suspected illegal content.
“Online platforms should do their utmost to proactively detect, identify and remove illegal content online. The Commission strongly encourages online platforms to use voluntary, proactive measures aimed at the detection and removal of illegal content and to step up cooperation and investment in, and use of, automatic detection technologies.”
This is similar to the much-discussed upload filters and raises the question whether such practice is in line with existing EU law. In the Sabam v Netlog case, the European Court of Justice previously ruled that hosting sites can’t be forced to filter copyrighted content, as this would violate the privacy of users and hinder freedom of information.
Importantly, the Commission emphasizes that when online services explicitly search for pirated material, they won’t lose the benefit of the liability exemption provided for in Article 14 of the E-Commerce Directive. In other words, copyright holders can’t hold these services accountable for content that slips through the net.
The recommendation further includes some specific suggestions to make sure that content, once removed, does not reappear. This is the notice-and-stay-down approach copyright holders are lobbying for, which can be addressed by content recognition tools including hash filtering.
“The Commission strongly encourages the further use and development of automatic technologies to prevent the re-appearance of illegal content online,” the document reads, adding that errors should not be overlooked.
“Where automatic tools are used to prevent re-appearance of illegal content a reversibility safeguard should be available for erroneous decisions, and the use and performance of this technology should be made transparent in the platforms’ terms of service.”
Hash-based and other automatic filters are not new of course. Services such as Google Drive and Dropbox already have these in place and YouTube’s Content-ID system also falls into this category.
Another measure to prevent re-uploading of content is to ban frequent offenders. The Commission notes that services should take appropriate measures against such users, which could include the suspension or termination of accounts.
Most of the suggestions come with a recommendation to have sufficient safeguards in place to repair or prevent errors. This includes a counter-notice process as well as regularly published transparency reports. In some cases where context is relevant, it is important to have a human reviewer in the loop.
Finally, the Commission encourages cooperation between online services and so-called “trusted flaggers.” The latter are known representatives of copyright holders who are trusted. As such, their takedown notices can be prioritized.
“Notices from trusted flaggers should be able to be fast-tracked by the platform. This cooperation should provide for mutual information exchange so as to evaluate and improve the removal process over time.”
The proposals go above and beyond current legal requirements. For many larger online services, it might not be too hard to comply with most of the above. But, for smaller services, it could be quite a burden.
European Digital Rights (EDRi) has highlighted some good and bad elements but remains critical.
“The document puts virtually all its focus on internet companies monitoring online communications, in order to remove content that they decide might be illegal. It presents few safeguards for free speech, and little concern for dealing with content that is actually criminal,” EDRi writes.
Google has also been critical of the notice-and-stay-down principle in the past. Copyright counsel Cédric Manara previously outlined several problems, concluding that the system “just won’t work.“