Europe Adopts Tough New Online Copyright Rules Over Tech Industry Protests

Media companies whose business models have been upended by the internet have long complained about Google and other online platforms profiting from their content without compensating them adequately.

On Tuesday, the media industry got some help with the European Parliament’s adoption of a copyright law that requires technology platforms to sign licensing agreements with musicians, authors and news publishers in order to post their work online.

The new law is meant to force tech firms to aggressively remove unlicensed copyrighted material from their websites proactively, rather than waiting for complaints to come in before acting.

The vote followed one of the most intense lobbying campaigns in years over a European Union law. Digital rights activists and tech industry representatives who opposed the law said it would result in censorship while limiting the sharing of information. The measure’s supporters said it would protect Europe’s creative industries and force companies to pay for the content they share online.

For a site like Google News, which collects and presents stories from news sites, the new law could require Google to obtain new licenses from publishers. After Spain passed a similar law, Google shut down Google News in the country.

“This is a historic vote for Europe’s soul and culture,” Carlo Perrone, the president of the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association, said. “After more than two years of debate and scrutiny, fairness has prevailed in the form of a copyright reform that will be essential for the future of press publishing and professional journalism.”

But Google, joined by tech industry trade groups, advocates of unfettered internet access and many academic researchers, argued that the copyright measure would be impossible to act on given the vast amount of content online, and would lead to the use of imperfect filtering systems to block videos and articles from being shared.

Wikipedia’s websites were shut down in several European countries this past weekend in protest of the tighter rules, and thousands of people held rallies against the law in several cities.

But the opponents couldn’t overcome a campaign by the music industry, book publishers, news media and others in creative industries that began more than two years ago. They argued the law was a long-overdue tool needed to wrestle back some control over how their content is distributed online, providing them more power to strike a deal with an internet behemoth like Google.

News organizations, led by the German publisher Axel Springer, were particularly aggressive. In the past week, several European newspapers published articles urging members of Parliament to back the law. In Poland, several major newspapers published blank front pages to raise reader awareness.

The measure was approved by a vote of 348 to 274. Now, each country in the European Union will have two years to turn the directive into law. Legal challenges are expected.

After the vote, Google issued a statement saying the new law would “lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies.”

“The details matter,” the statement continued, “and we look forward to working with policymakers, publishers, creators and rights holders as E.U. member states move to implement these new rules.”

Supporters took advantage of the growing backlash against the tech industry, arguing the legislation would help crimp the power of Silicon Valley in Europe. The European Union’s tough stance toward the industry is now seen as a potential example for other countries attempting to assert more control over tech platforms such as Google and Facebook.

The legislation is the latest chapter in an old debate about the internet. News organizations, broadcasters and music companies want more control over how their work is spread across the web, and to be paid more for it. Google, Facebook and others argue that they help direct viewers and advertising revenue to media outlets. Advocates for an open internet contend that regulating the web sets a bad precedent and could limit access to information.

The law’s main targets are Google and Facebook. Media companies believe the two internet giants have grown into advertising powerhouses on the back of their material. Google and Facebook will face more pressure to negotiate licensing deals with news publishers and music-rights owners for content on YouTube, Google News or Instagram, or risk legal challenges.

The law requires Google and other websites with more than five million unique monthly visitors to make their “best effort” to receive authorization from the owner of copyrighted content, or take steps to keep the material from being shared on its sites altogether. European policymakers added exemptions to allow for quotations, criticism, parody and artistic interpretation.

Siada El Ramly, the director general of EDiMA, a European trade group representing companies including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb and Twitter, said the law left too much room for interpretation and would be challenged in court.

“We’re going to end up in a situation where there will be major litigation to define what the text actually means,” Ms. El Ramly said. “It will be reviewed in the years to come.”

Operators of websites have long enjoyed protection from liability when a user posts unlicensed content. They are required to remove infringing material once it is brought to their attention. That means that if someone posts a movie clip on YouTube, or shares the text of an article on Reddit, those sites are not held legally liable.

That remains the main standard in the United States. But under the new European rule, website owners will have more responsibility for what ends up on their platform, a new legal liability that could be costly for sites dependent on user-generated content.

Operators of smaller websites argued against the bill, saying only giant tech platforms would have the resources to comply with the law. Google and Facebook already use filtering technology to take down some forms of content, including pornography.

“These laws are often entrenching these big players,” said Raegan MacDonald, head of policy in the European Union for the web browser Mozilla.