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  • Dominic McGonigal - C8 Associates

The Astroturf War.

Brexit - The UK is out

It was close. The European Parliament has approved the Copyright Directive, after rejecting it in July amid claims the new legislation would break the internet.

Watching the vote in Strasbourg, it was just like any other. MEPs raised their hands or press electronic buttons to vote in favour or against each amendment. But behind this façade lurked a more sinister campaign.

On the surface this was a debate about balancing the power of internet platforms with the power of creators and publishers. But it turned into a battle between machines and democracy.

The nuclear button was pressed in June, after the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament had agreed draft legislation that would force internet platforms to take some responsibility for the content on their platform. Two weeks later, all 750 MEPs were to decide whether to accept the proposals from their colleagues or reject it. In those two weeks, there was an explosion of emails and phone calls. It all happened very fast and it took even some seasoned politicians by surprise.

MEPs were bombarded with automated phone calls.

Their inboxes were flooded with automated emails.

Apparently, a million people signed a petition against Article 13 of the Copyright Directive.

Where did all this come from? There were few faces in this campaign. There was very little activity on the streets. MEPs were not being questioned by constituents.

This was not a grass roots campaign. It was fake, like fake grass – astroturf.

The anti-copyright campaign organised demos on 26 August. Only about 15 people turned up in Berlin, Stockholm, Frankfurt and other European cities. Almost every week in Brussels there is a demo attracting a few hundred people when individuals feel strongly about an issue.

MEPs received as many emails in 2 weeks as most of us receive in 2 years. They had never seen anything like this and for good reason. Most of these emails were not sent by European citizens.

The emails and phone calls were most likely generated automatically by Open Media, a company in Canada. Using bots, it is possible to send thousands of emails and make thousands of phone calls. If the emails are sent from distributed accounts, it is difficult for spam filters to detect them, rather like a DDOS attack on a website. The bots are effectively replicating the behaviour of humans.

So, rather than 50,000 EU citizens emailing their MEP, this was bots filling their inbox. It was machines ringing up MEPs and their assistants.

But why would a company in Canada want to stop a piece of legislation in Brussels? The real interest in Article 13 came from Google, which does not want to take responsibility for content on their platforms. They were objecting to the proposals to filter content to prevent illegal content being made available. And, there is a real commercial interest here. Google reportedly spent €30m on the campaign against Article 13 in the two weeks before the vote in July.

During the debate on the Copyright Directive, several MEPs pointed out that this was a campaign by machines, not humans. One said it was manipulation, not democracy. Another highlighted the power of the internet giants. Others were concerned about yielding to US propaganda.

But some MEPs were won over by the astroturf campaign. One MEP from the right even complained about robots deciding on filtering, without realising that he had been fed that line by thousands of robots sending him emails and phone calls. And MEPs on the left found themselves speaking on behalf of one of the most profitable corporations on the planet.

In the end, second time round, the astroturf campaign was rejected by MEPs. But the robots and their puppet-masters were close to winning.

Whatever your views on whether platforms should be regulated, whether publishers should be given more negotiating power and whether artists deserve more remuneration, that debate should not be determined by machines and robots, working under the order of a major corporation.


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