Glenn Carstens-Peters

Civil Liberties

Will Memes Mark the End of the Censorship Wars?

If you want to respond to the latest current event with the perfect bit of social media snark, you may soon have to revert to old-fashioned wordplay minus the viral images we all use to punctuate a point. Plenty of internet users already know what it’s like to exist in a meme-less world, but if a European Parliament committee has its way, a lot more online dwellers could be forced to communicate without memes or GIFs.

As if the world isn’t already dark and gloomy enough, the committee voted in favor of articles 11 and 13 of the European Union’s copyright directive. Article 11, or the “link tax,” passed by a majority vote of 15-10, requires digital platforms to pay a tax when they refer to other online content. This could have a negative impact on the bottom line of online publications and other companies that utilize hyperlinks to build and drive traffic to their sites. Article 13, also known as “censorship machines,” is believed by many to be the more frightening of the two proposals. It puts the onus on digital platforms to monitor all content uploaded to their websites (including user comments that may contain GIFs, screenshots, videos or memes) in order to prevent instances of copyright infringement.

Needless to say, we’ve faced some rather scary possible scenarios for what the internet could eventually evolve into—a major one surrounding the ongoing debate over net neutrality. However, the idea of being subjected to censorship by way of copyright laws that seek to abolish our right to post and share endless gifs and memes probably isn’t a tactic that anyone saw coming *inserts squinting lady meme.*

But perhaps it should’ve been. In 2012, Google reported an “alarming” increase in government censorship requests, which included rising attempts made by the U.S. to censor web search results, namely YouTube. Then the following year, the Guardian delivered an equally grim technological forecast with its assertion that the “net was closing in” by way of strategic government-sanctioned restrictions and regulations.

In 2012, Google reported an “alarming” increase in government censorship requests, which included rising attempts made by the U.S. to censor web search results.

Three years later, we observed what Wired described as a growing trend of government-steered internet censorship advancing in a horrifying way. Twitter filed a lawsuit against the federal government after the Department of Homeland Security demanded the social media platform reveal the identity of a user who criticized the Trump administration. As Freedom House analyst Jessica White told the publication at the time, we should expect similar moves from the government.

“On a global level, social media platforms have been facing growing censorship over the past year,” White said. “Twitter’s lawsuit put an end to one attempt by the Trump administration to undermine free online expression, but it is unlikely to be the last. It is just the freshest in a long string of ploys by governments around the world to solidify their power over online communities.”

While the committee throwing its collective support behind the reform is certainly a critical development and gives even more credence to White’s predictions, internet culture as we know it hasn’t quite yet been given the kiss of death. The copyright reform proposal still has to go before a final legislative stage before it becomes law, and plenty of opponents have been very vocal in expressing why the changes are troublesome. As Mashable points out, advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation explained in a letter to the EU how the copyright reform places extra pressure on internet service providers and online business owners:

"Article 13 introduces new obligations on internet service providers that share and store user-generated content, such as video or photo-sharing platforms or even creative writing websites, including obligations to filter uploads to their services," the group wrote in a post on its site. "Article 13 appears to provoke such legal uncertainty that online services will have no other option than to monitor, filter and block EU citizens’ communications if they are to have any chance of staying in business."

Until we come to a point in the road where we’re all forced to stash our favorite memes and GIFs away in a random file labeled “RIP,” copyright reform opponents encourage citizens to push for a plenary session by contacting their members of parliament. If you run short on words to express your dismay at the proposed changes, an assortment of sad face memes will likely be just as effective.

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