UK Music CEO warns the relationship with tech giants is set to be one of the defining battle

By UK Music CEO Michael Dugher

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24/01/2018: Over Christmas I took my six-year-old son to the cinema to watch an animated film called ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’. If you haven’t seen it, don’t bother. It’s rubbish. The title though did make me smile.

It reminded me of the ludicrously alarmist campaign by Google’s YouTube which is urging people, including children, to “save your internet” in the face of the European Union’s proposed changes to copyright protection.

At UK Music we are supporting Article 13 of the Copyright Directive, whereby creators at last stand to get a fairer deal from tech giants like YouTube.  Did you know that at present a song needs to be streamed on YouTube 14,500 times before a creator can earn the equivalent of just one hour on the National Living Wage for a 25-year-old?

YouTube is now one of the main ways that people listen to the music they love.  It accounts for 84 per cent of all video streaming services with 85 per cent of visitors regularly coming to the site for music. This ought to be good news for British music creators, but sadly it isn’t because of YouTube’s determination to continue ripping-off the people who create the very content that makes YouTube billions of dollars.

This battle between music creators and YouTube has once again brought into sharp focus the behaviour of some parts of big tech. It has been sad to see the tactics employed by the likes of Google’s YouTube, in a desperate and unedifying attempt to block these badly needed changes by deliberately spreading misinformation – including negative pop-up messages seen by children about Article 13 on its service.

For example, it is utter nonsense to claim, as YouTube do, that these changes will mean the end of memes, that they will kill remixes or mash-ups or stop people sharing content.  What the copyright changes will do is help redress the balance and give creators a fairer deal when it comes to how their work is shared online. 

At present, YouTube exploits legal loopholes which enable them to pay creators a minuscule amount in royalties and rates that are way below that of other digital music services.  These loopholes are a result of safe harbours created in the early days of the internet, long before the possibilities of a service like YouTube could even be imagined.

The law has simply not kept pace with the development of the digital economy and now Article 13 has been proposed to create a more level playing field.

Article 13 would close the loopholes and require YouTube to have greater liability for music on its service.  The legal clarity it will provide will actually make it easier for the public to create, post and share online content. Online encyclopedias, open source software and non-commercial platforms are explicitly excluded from the requirements of Article 13.

All we are looking for are protections for the creators who are behind the global success of British music. This is an industry that contributes £4.5 billion to our national economy, the sustainability of which is at risk from tech platforms who seek ‘safe harbour’ to exploit people’s creativity.

But there is an even bigger picture here. The fast-changing relationship with tech giants is set to be one of the defining battles of our times.  Global companies like Google and Facebook and Amazon have evolved from dynamic insurgents into an almost monopolistic predatory oligarchy.  They have changed forever the way we shop, work, communicate and consume everything from news and information to groceries and music. In the early days it was harder to see the fault lines, but those cracks have now grown into yawning chasms and much is at stake.

Years ago, wide-eyed libertarians on the left and the right could see no downside to a free, unfettered internet. But the worldwide web, rather like a spider’s web for an unsuspecting fly, has led to some rather undesirable outcomes. Governments have to intervene in a range of areas – from child protection to counter terrorism.

And we know that it’s not just creators that are getting ripped-off by big tech. It’s the taxpayer too. Last year, Amazon revealed that its UK corporation tax bill had almost halved to £4.5 million in 2017, just days after it posted a record profit of £1.9 billion in one quarter.

Google was back in the news after it emerged in the new year that it had moved $22.7 billion, via a Dutch shell company called Google Netherlands Holdings BV, to a tax haven in Bermuda in 2017 to avoid paying foreign taxes.

In 2018, Facebook was fined £500,000 – a tiny amount compared to its £31.5 billion in global revenue in 2017 – by regulators after it failed to ensure another company, Cambridge Analytica, had deleted users’ data. And then there are huge questions over how dark forces may have used Facebook in an attempt to subvert democracy and influence the outcome of the US election and the EU referendum vote here.  Crusading MP Damian Collins, who chairs the influential Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, has repeatedly tried to haul Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to Parliament. The fact Zuckerberg has refused tells you everything you need to know about their corporate arrogance.

What happens over the coming days and weeks in Brussels over Article 13 and copyright changes is pivotal to protect creators. But this is part of a bigger global pushback by people and governments against these increasingly powerful, unaccountable and predatory tech giants.

In the music industry, we have many productive relationships with tech firms like the streaming service Spotify and Apple Music. We want all the tech giants to face up to all their responsibilities – social, financial, even democratic.

In the film I watched with my son at Christmas, Ralph failed to break the internet. Nothing will. But it is time to rein in the big internet giants and for them to start treating us all with a little fairness and respect.

M Magazine

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