Upload filters: a danger to free internet content?

The European Union is a political and economic union consisting of 28 member states, which are subject to the obligations and the privileges of the membership. Countries which form part of the European Union are therefore characterised by their ongoing efforts to create a common European area with an internal market which promotes scientific and technological development.

What is more, the European Union and the United States are tied not only by the world’s largest bilateral trade agreement, but also by common investments, which form part of the most integrated economic relationship in the world. Advancements within the EU are therefore seen as important building blocks of this relationship. One of the most recent developments concerns the European Union’s copyright reforms, which have been an ongoing phenomenon for the past couple of years.

Apart from Article 11 of the proposed EU copyright reform (granting direct copyright over online use of press publications), which derives from the ancillary copyright for press publishers introduced in Germany in 2013, Article 13 has also raised a few eyebrows, as it proposes to permanently commit internet platforms to so-called upload filters. While supporters of the clause in question see this as an essential technological development ensuring correct copyright measures in movies, music, or texts, its opponents fear that it will weaken the network culture and threaten the right to freedom of expression with unforeseeable consequences.

We must therefore ask ourselves what the upload filters are all about, how they work, where they have already been implemented, and most importantly, why do they cause such heated debates?

The current status: Upload filters will come

It now looks like the upload filters ostensibly required by Article 13 will come after all.

On Wednesday, March 13th representatives of the EU Parliament, Commission and EU member states have agreed on a final text on the reform of EU copyright law. In the near future, only the European Parliament will have to vote on it. However, it is assumed that there will be no surprising change: Since all three institutions have already reached agreement on the text, it would be very unusual for Parliament to reject it. However, this does not stop opponents of the reform from continuing to argue against upload filters: In addition to online

EU copyright reform: upload filters not mentioned explicitly

Provisions to check content for copyright infringement will only apply to large sites, and smaller ones would be spared. Online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia are also to be exempted from the obligation to check content. The European Commission have also presented another directive in which upload filters play a key role: As part of the fight against terrorism, internet platforms are to be forced to examine all content for terrorist propaganda. What was not included in the regulation, however, was an exception for small website operators or open source offerings. This means that the upload filter policy would be a blanket policy, covering all nations. In the context of upload filters, Article 13 is of particular interest, even though it is not exactly mentioned. The European Parliament does not tell operators of online platforms how to ensure copyright protection. But critics and observers assume that there is no other option: According to the draft, platforms should check their content for copyright infringements already, before publishing anything. Due to the enormous volume of data, this is practically impossible without automated upload filters.

What is upload filtering?

Upload filters are automated computer programs that scan data either when it is uploaded online or before it is published on a platform, and subsequently verify it according to certain criteria. There are three possible scenarios upon detecting content which does not conform to previously defined criteria – it is either blocked, the user is prevented from uploading, or the content is simply modified to match all norms. Upload filters can either be installed on individual sites and apps, implemented by web hosts, or by the user's internet provider. They can be used for the following purposes:

  • Prevention of extremist and criminal content
  • Limitation of false reports, insults, and cyberbullying
  • Filtering of pornographic or violent content
  • Identification of copyrighted material
  • Censorship is possible in the event of misuse

It is the last point that has recently triggered heated debates about upload filters among members of the European Parliament in the context of copyright law.

How do upload filters work?

Upload filters require two essential components, one of them being a database of impermissible data stored in the form of hash values. In the case of the current EU-driven incentive, such a database would contain copyright-protected material.

Fact

Hash values, which are primarily used to store passwords, are strings of letters and numbers generated by mathematical functions from source materials. The same source material always produces the same hash value. However, it is not possible to deduce the source material from hash values.

An algorithm compares the hash values of copyrighted material with those of the uploaded data. An overlap between the two prevents the file from being uploaded. Nevertheless, upload filters do not become activated solely in cases of completely identical or very similar files. With the aid of various machine learning methods, you can spot individual components in images, videos, song parts, or texts. It is even possible to model underlying files to a certain extent. Let’s take cat images as an example. From a database of cat images, algorithms are able to learn how a cat looks and subsequently recognise new cat images that have not yet been saved in a database.

Where have upload filters already been implemented?

A nationwide commitment to upload filters would be a far-reaching step. However, in order to validate the large amounts of data uploaded onto various platforms on a daily basis, large internet companies have already been using this technology for a long time.

YouTube

YouTube’s upload filter – Content ID – checks all newly uploaded videos for copyright infringements. Upon detection of content which violates respective regulations, copyright owners can act in three different ways:

  • Block access to the video and delete its content so that it can no longer be accessed
  • Gain revenue from advertisements which are broadcasted before videos start
  • Stay informed on the number of hits and other corresponding statistics

In particular, the unauthorised distribution of films, shows, songs, and music videos is to be prevented by this method. According to YouTube, the algorithm in question spares the work of 180,000 human inspectors.

Facebook

The world’s largest social network – Facebook – predominantly uses upload filters to spot posts, images, and videos which are violent, inappropriate for young viewers, and offensive even before their publication. In order to combat terrorist or extremist content, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube resort to a common database compliant with the operations of Europol – the European Police Authority.

Microsoft OneDrive

As individual files are uploaded onto its Cloud, the file hosting service in question performs automatic data analysis called PhotoDNA, which is predominantly used to combat child pornography. In this way, in 2015 for example, the German Federal Criminal Police was able to detect a paedophile with the aid of evidence provided by Microsoft.

ResearchGate

Upon requests by various publishers, this social network for scientific publications was forced to introduce upload filters to identify unauthorised secondary publications and plagiarisms. The algorithm simply decided whether publications should only be made available to certain research groups or should be deleted in their entirety instead.

Criticism of upload filters

Although upload filters and their fight against child pornography, extremism, and copyright infringement initially sounds like a support-worthy cause, they also cause some considerable risks, which are incessantly pointed out by opponents of this new EU copyright law.

Susceptibility to errors and manipulation

are relatively easy to trick when carrying copyrighted material across blocking filters. Nonetheless, what seems to be even more worrying is that computer programs often censor permissible content. In this way, algorithms do not spot parodies, remixes, or tributes, which are generally covered by copyright law. Critics therefore not only speak of restrictions to artistic freedom, but also of an end to ‘meme culture’. This internet phenomenon is often based on recontextualising copyright-protected images, videos, and songs, and even sometimes contributes towards the redistribution of content which has been changed in its entirety.

It is also possible to fraudulently claim copyrighted material and register it in a database. The spread of content unprotected by copyrights would therefore be impossible before determining the true owner.

Possibility of censorship

Upload filters simultaneously provide a means for pre-censoring and controlling government-owned information. When misused, upload filters could favour the restriction of the right to freedom of expression and of the press. For instance, if databases were not filled with copyrighted material, but rather with unpopular statements and other forms of criticism directed at the State, then they could no longer be freely voiced on the internet. The implementation of such forms of technology gives a taste of what the nationwide content-filtering policy in China feels like.

What is the current debate on upload filters actually all about?

The redesign of copyright laws in the European Union has considerably heightened the public’s awareness of upload filters. Copyrights holders such as publishers, film distributors, and the music industry demand improved protection of their copyrighted works on digital distribution channels and urge the prevention of unauthorised data disclosure (already taking place on platforms such as YouTube).

On the other side of the fence, however, there are various associations, internet activists, civil rights campaigners, Wikipedia operators, and critically-minded politicians spread across various parties. Although they are in favour of the aims of the proposed act and support the protection of intellectual property, they point out that upload filters are not the right way to go at all. They believe that the filters in question go far beyond their main objective, are not yet fully developed, and would pose a threat to freedom of expression.

Please note the legal disclaimer relating to this article.