Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane.
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
From Maggie’s Farm, written by Bob Dylan
Google on the Back Foot with the Copyright Directive
Google and Facebook recently suffered a lobbying debacle in Europe over the European Copyright Directive. That legislation cuts back the European version of the what Americans call the DMCA safe harbor. A triumph for artists, Google’s European loss was the worst lobbying defeat that Silicon Valley has been handed in a long time—at least since the SESTA legislation cut back another safe harbor in the U.S. So it shouldn’t be surprising that YouTube’s CEO is trying to influence YouTubers to lobby on behalf of Big Tech—Google desperately needs some human shields, which is exactly what participating YouTubers would be. Once again scrubbing the floor for the House of Google.
At its core, the Copyright Directive cuts back the ability of services like YouTube to profit from infringing activities on their platforms. One would expect corporations profiting from that safe harbor to lobby against it, just like supporters lobbied for it. But Google and Facebook went well beyond simply lobbying by attempting to sow discord and undermine democratic institutions.
And they got caught—red handed. They were caught conducting active measures such as spamming, bot farming and overt messaging campaigns calculated to undermine the legislative process in the European Parliament. You can read about it in a number of leading European publications starting with investigations by both the Times of London and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Most importantly Google supporters like the Pirate Party promised—or more accurately “threatened”—that “constituents” would show up to protest, and very few did. So Google’s active measures campaign lacked a human face—the key component that brought it down.
German MEP Helga Truepel explained why the plenary vote on the Copyright Directive was so lopsided against Google at a press conference : “…[It was] due to this message spamming campaign. I talked to some of my colleagues here [and they] are totally pissed off, cause in the streets there were a maximum 500-800 people last Sunday [at Pirate Party protests]… and we were only deleting emails for weeks now.”
Plan B and the First Rule of Lawfare
Fast forward to today: Google needs a Plan B. Desperately.
Google’s problem today is the Members of the European Parliament (and some members of the UK Parliament) are wise to their jive after the plenary vote. My bet is that story is not yet concluded as it merits a criminal investigation. Because when a corporate covert influence operation is discovered and attribution is certain, it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle (just like Internet piracy).
But while Google desperately needs a Plan B to retain its safe harbor, publicly acknowledging its influence operation is politically awkward, bread crumbs or no. Like fight club, the first rule of lawfare is that it does not exist.
Google and Facebook are struggling to find that Plan B as the EU lawmaking process continues with the “Trilogue”, the next step to the Copyright Directive becoming national law in the European Union. Google seeks another way to overwhelm the system by finding human shields to mingle with the bots. And that’s where YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki comes in with her recent appeal to YouTubers to protest the Directive.
Ms. Wojcicki may want us to overlook that Google just got caught running active measures against a democratic institution to meddle in the legislative process on another continent. But members of the European Parliament have not forgotten. She may be able to pull the wool over YouTuber’s eyes, but it just makes her human shields look even more duped and her methods look especially more alarming—if not terrifying—in a post-Cambridge Analytica world.
Safe Harbors, Addiction and Human Shields
Don’t underestimate how important these safe harbors are to Google, Facebook and its fellow monopolists. They were ready to be on the wrong side of child sex trafficking legislation to preserve their other safe harbor (Section 230 of the “Communications Decency Act”)—that surely strained Sheryl Sandberg’s performance as Wendy to Mark Zuckerberg’s “boy who wouldn’t grow up.” These safe harbors are crucial to Google, Facebook and Twitter—because it protects them as they snort up the addictive content and reward (if not sell) views, likes, follows, and “engagement.”
Remember—YouTube is not in the music business, or even in the content business at the end of the day. Google and Facebook are in the addiction business.
In particular the behavioral addiction business (see Irresistible by Dr. Adam Alter). If you’re in the addiction business, safe harbors are very, very important. Just ask the narcotraficantes. And don’t forget—the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island investigated Google for violations of the Controlled Substances Act that resulted in a $500,000,000 fine and a non-prosecution agreement (not to mention a shareholder lawsuit).
Straight Outta Minitrue
But I suspect it is the embarrassing lack of human shields cited by MEP Helga Truepel that drove Ms. Wojcicki to issue a meandering tl;dr blog post trying to convince “YouTube creators” to fall in with the company line on the Copyright Directive.
Ms. Wojcicki manages to get through her entire appeal without coming clean about the point of the Copyright Directive—YouTube profits from piracy through the safe harbor that the Directive would cut back, especially Article 13. (There’s way more to the Directive than Article 13, but that’s another story.)
She would have YouTubers sign up to the “sky is falling” claims that “the unintended consequences of Article 13 will put [the highly profitable YouTube] ecosystem at risk”. Why? Because “[i]t would be too risky for platforms to host content from smaller original content creators, because the platforms would now be directly liable for that content.”
That is quite a leap—how is it that “smaller” YouTubers would be such a big problem? After all of YouTube’s “advertiser friendly” changes that severely hurt the earning power of many YouTubers, does Ms. Wojcicki really think that YouTubers—a pretty clever bunch on the whole it must be said—are so gullible that they will miss the irony?
And then she says this: “We are committed to working with the industry to find a better way. This language could be finalized by the end of the year [in the Trilogue], so it’s important to speak up now.”
Given the breadth of the coalition supporting the Copyright Directive and opposing Google and Facebook, it’s not immediately clear who is “the industry.” I can tell you that if she includes the music industry in that reference, I can save her some time.
Nobody in “the industry” trusts Google, YouTube, Facebook or Ms. Wojcicki. [Although the beachhead that Google scored with the MMA may make life interesting for publishers and songwriters wishing to protest against the hand that feeds the mechanical licensing collective.]
And, frankly, I’d be surprised if many YouTubers trust her either. Based on the vote supporting the Copyright Directive, there’s a wide swath of MEPs that have severe misgivings about all these Silicon Valley companies trying to run roughshod over Europeans. And then there’s the two and probably soon to be three competition prosecutions against Google by the European Commission. That’s a thing.
Ms. Wojcicki hasn’t learned (and I predict won’t ever learn) a simple truth that every record company and music publisher knows—don’t jack with the talent. YouTube jacks with the talent frequently, so it’s unclear how the talent is going to react to this latest request that they take time out of their day to help YouTube.
It’s not a good look and it will come back to bite. YouTube has been profiting from the safe harbor for its entire existence and wouldn’t know how to make an honest buck if their lives depended.
Is Election Meddling Next on Google’s Agenda?
Before Ms. Wojcicki tries to rally YouTubers as human shields to support Google’s billions on her bot farm, she needs to get her own house in order.
And members of the European Parliament need to get a grip on these active measures campaigns before Google goes beyond “lobbying” on an issue vote and moves on to meddling in campaign outcomes in a few months when the European Parliament stands for election.
In a post-Cambridge Analytica world, we all know it’s a short step from undermining opposition on a particular issue to undermining the election of a particular candidate. And Google is just as capable of meddling as any state actor if not more so.