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Could the EU’s copyright directive entrench the tech giants’ dominance?

The European Parliament’s decision to approve controversial new copyright rules on Tuesday will be seen as a major blow to the US tech giants which lobbied hard to fight them.

But UK technology leaders have warned that the new rules, which are designed to protect publishers and creatives, could tilt the playing field, counter-intuitively, in Big Tech’s favour.

Although member states have the final say on how the directive is implemented, some critics fear it will force sites to filter all content uploaded by their users to check for copyright breaches.

While YouTube was one of the most vocal critics of the new regime, it already has systems in place to help artists do exactly that, and take action against the perpetrators.

But it’s feared the cost of compliance could crush smaller sites. MEPs who voted in favour of the laws argue they have taken measures to provide a softer liability regime for sites under three years old with a turnover of less than €10m (£8.5m).

However, critics warn that this casts a tiny net and that the regulation will still penalise thousands of platforms, such as niche social media sites, which surpass the threshold but lack the technical expertise required for compliance.

“If you’re putting a significant burden on larger businesses, the step up from small-tier to mid-tier or mid-tier to large becomes that much more difficult to achieve,” says Giles Derrington, a policy expert at TechUK, which represents large and small tech companies alike. “The smaller companies simply won’t have the capacity to comply.”

When the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation came into effect last year, its advocates claimed it would rein in Silicon Valley’s advertising-funded tech giants. However, it has been smaller ad tech firms which have felt the burden of the regulation most.

“GDPR has been problematic for businesses to deal with but the bigger ones have the resource to get through it,” says Derrington, “There’s a risk these regulations entrench market dominance.”

Critics also fear that companies will feel threatened by the prospect of falling foul of the rules and respond over-zealously to the regulation with strict content filters leading to false positives.

“If copyright filters go ahead, large numbers of mistaken takedowns will impact what we do and say online,” says the Open Rights Group’s executive director Jim Killock. “The EU Parliament has made a serious error of judgement here. We will go on doing everything we can to stop this being the disaster it promises to be.”