Itâs a fight nearly as old as the internet.
On one side are news organizations, broadcasters and music companies that want to control how their content spreads across the web, and to be paid more for it. On the other are tech companies such as Facebook and Google, which argue that they funnel viewers and advertising revenue to media outlets, and free-speech advocates, who say that regulating the internet would set a dangerous precedent and limit access to information.
That battle flared up in Europe on Thursday. Two powerful industries faced off â technology against media, platforms against publishers â in an unusually aggressive lobbying campaign in the European Parliament over a bill that would impose some of the worldâs strictest copyright laws, which would have required tech companies to filter out unlicensed content and pay for its use.
On this occasion, tech prevailed; the proposal was voted down.
The decision came amid broader efforts in Brussels to rein in tech giants. European regulators have already brought in tough new privacy rules, and are considering enhancing them. They have hit Silicon Valley companies with hefty antitrust fines, and are investigating them over their tax practices and handling of data. And like elsewhere in the world, they are increasingly skeptical of the argument made by internet companies that they are simply impartial platforms that cannot be held responsible for what is posted on their pages.
âMaking content available on the internet does not come without responsibility,â said Eleonora Rosati, an associate professor on intellectual property law at the University of Southamptonâs law school in England, who has been tracking the bill. âRights holders want to control how their content is made available, shared and indexed.â
But after a well-coordinated effort by companies including Facebook, Google, Reddit and Wikipedia, as well as a grass-roots campaign by backers of an open internet, the European Parliament on Thursday rejected the proposed copyright law. Though lawmakers can still revise the bill and call another vote, the result is a blow to media companies that had believed that, if ever there was a good time to impose tougher rules on tech giants, this was it.
Media businesses like Axel Springer of Germany have become frustrated because even as their content has spread online, it is platforms like YouTube, owned by Google, and Facebook that have grown into advertising powerhouses on the back of the material.
Those media companies have been seeking a rewrite of Europeâs copyright laws that would give them more power to restrict how their content is distributed. They also cited concerns that Silicon Valley was not playing a strong enough gatekeeper role when it came to curtailing hate speech, violent extremism and fake news.
Supporters of the bill argued that stricter copyright laws would give content creators more leverage against internet behemoths such as Google. Publishers have long complained that such companies profit from the work of others.
âThe real issue is Googleâs market power,â said Lionel Bently, a law professor at the University of Cambridge who focuses on copyright. âThe content industry feels it canât negotiate on a level playing field.â
Influential policymakers in Brussels such as the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, have seemed receptive to such arguments. A proposal was put forward to require websites to use filtering technology to block unlicensed content from being posted and to obligate them to pay fees for news articles and other material posted online.
The proposed rules would have added up to a sweeping change to copyright law.
Operators of websites have long been protected from liability when unlicensed content is posted by a user. Instead, they are required only to remove infringing material once it is brought to their attention. In effect, if someone posts a movie clip on YouTube, or shares the text of an article on Reddit, those websites are not held legally liable.
The new European proposals would put more responsibility on website owners, creating a potentially costly problem for sites that depend on user-generated material.
The most contentious provision of the plans would require websites to use filtering software to screen such content before it was posted. YouTube already has a system to weed out unlicensed material, but the European rules would have gone further by requiring others to use similar tools. Another requirement, favored by book and news publishers, would prevent websites from using pieces of their content without authorization.
Critics of the bill argued that it would lead to many unforeseen consequences, warning that it could even affect satirical content or the use of images in internet memes. They said it would restrict what was available online, and some described a provision requiring permission before websites used publishersâ content as a âlink tax.â
âThereâs no way that those algorithmic filters are going to be able to decide that something is fair use, parody, a meme or a mash-up,â said Danny OâBrien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit group that opposed the bill.
In defeating the proposal, the technology industry showed that it still held considerable influence, even as it has faced widespread criticism over privacy violations, the spread of misinformation, accusations of anticompetitive business practices and concerns about smartphone overuse.
The coalition against the proposal that came together over the past month was similar to defenders of net neutrality in the United States, a mix of corporate giants and open internet activists. They said the copyright bill would limit the access to information and would overburden operators of websites, especially those without the resources of an American tech giant, with the costly task of screening user-generated content before posting it.
Wikipedia blocked access to articles on its site in many European countries and encouraged its users to call on their representatives in the European Parliament to vote against the proposal. Scientists credited with creating the internet sent a letter urging that it be rejected. Even David Kaye, the United Nations rapporteur on the protection of freedom of expression, raised concerns.
Wikipedia said on its website that the measure âthreatens online freedom and creates obstacles to accessing the web, imposing new barriers, filters and restrictions.â
Lobbying ahead of the vote was âextraordinary, something we donât experience on a normal basis here in the Parliament,â said Umberto Gambini, a senior aide to Ramon Tremosa, a Spanish member of the European Parliament.
Mr. Gambini said he had received hundreds of messages from individuals and organizations attempting to win Mr. Tremosaâs support. There was one from a Polish business group, he said, another from an artistsâ organization, and others still from news publishers and associations representing tech companies.
He added that one message had come from the musician Paul McCartney, who wrote to members of the European Parliament in support of the tighter copyright rules.
But Mr. McCartneyâs efforts were in vain: Mr. Tremosa ultimately opposed the bill.