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EU copyright bill's bumpy legislative ride

Photo of protester in Germany with tape over her mouth.
A protester in Hamburg, Germany, objects to Article 13 (now 17) of the EU's pending copyright bill. Photo: Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Europe's new copyright bill — the one many of the internet's inventors argue will jeopardize the network's future — is almost certainly destined to become law in each of the EU member countries, after an EU Parliament vote earlier this week. But some procedural hiccups left a sliver of doubt about the outcome, raising a glimmer of hope among the bill's ardent detractors.

Why it matters: The copyright bill has two controversial provisions that could fundamentally change how links and user-created content work online.

Background: The controversy stems from two sections:

  • The first, widely known as Article 11. would charge tech companies like Google to run services like Google News. It's been called a link tax because it would charge sites when they provide links and summaries of stories, and it's controversial because, while Google may be able to front that cost, an average blogger wouldn't be.
  • The second, widely known as Article 13, would require tech companies to pre-scan user uploads for copyrighted material, which could be extremely difficult to do at a YouTube or Facebook scale.

But, but, but: In the final draft of the legislation, well after people started debating Article 11 and Article 13 under those names, the official name of Article 11 became Article 15 and Article 13 became Article 17.

  • If that confuses you, it apparently confused many members of the European Parliament as well.

The catch: Those provisions may have passed by accident.

  • An amendment that would have put these two controversial parts of the bill on hold failed by 5 votes, but 13 voters claim they didn't mean to vote the way they did. If the lawmakers had voted as they say they wanted rather than as their votes were recorded, that amendment would have passed.
  • Even if the amendment had passed, there would have been another vote on the controversial provisions, which could still have OK'd them.
  • The botched votes are official and indelible.
  • MEP Marietje Schaake, who first noticed the glitch, told The Verge that the voting confusion "could make a little bit of a difference" in the next stages of the copyright law process, but was unlikely to change its eventual enactment.

Where it stands: In the EU, after Parliament passes a bill, the Council of the European Union votes on it. This vote is expected on April 9.

  • Observers expect the copyright bill to pass the Council. But all that's needed to alter the outcome is for a single country to flip its vote.
  • Opponents of the bill believe Germany is a good target to make that change. The country's privacy commissioner has come out against the bill.

Meanwhile, the U.K. — which as of this writing is still in the EU — presents a stranger situation.

  • It could be a prospect for changing its vote if Prime Minister Theresa May steps down.
  • Boris Johnson, who could be next in line to form a Tory-led government, has come out against the copyright rules as an example of why the U.K. needs to leave the EU.
  • But right now, it's Johnson's Tory party that has positioned the U.K. behind the bill.

Once the bill passes, each member country of the EU will be required to pass a domestic version of the law. That could take years more.