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What does the EU’s new “Link Tax” law mean for digital marketers?

By 12th September 2018No Comments

It’s been an interesting year for digital marketing professionals, with the introduction of GDPR in May 2018 affecting many of us already. To add to the legislative fun, members of the European parliament today voted in favour of the controversial new copyright laws including a scary sounding “link tax”, that some people believe could mean the end of user-generated content and backlinking as we know it. Is there any truth to the scare stories? And what does this really mean for our industry? Let’s see if we can find out…

What is the link tax?

The laws that are causing concern are officially known as “Article 13” and “Article 11” of the “Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market” (catchy, right?).

Article 13 is known as the upload filter law and is quite clearly targeted at user-generated content websites like Youtube. It will force these companies to take more action to stop users from uploading copyrighted content. While this shouldn’t impact marketers who follow the rules in theory, in practice it may be difficult for the affected websites to effectively implement the required changes without getting it wrong sometimes.

Article 11 is the “link tax” law that provides mechanisms for news sources to charge license fees when their content is linked to by a third party. The law is a result of content creators being concerned that companies like Google and Facebook profit from their efforts unfairly because people go to Google and Facebook to find content rather than the actual sources. Google for instance, has been steadily increasing the amount of information that it shows on its results pages and this is something that websites with strong search engine optimisation can benefit from. However, the other side of this coin is that internet users can often find all the information they are looking for from Google’s results alone. This on the face of things could ultimately result in less advertising revenue for the websites affected, with Google getting more. Whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks is another question entirely.

Article 13 is proving the most controversial law overall, but it’s Article 11 that is causing the most concern for some digital marketers.

Why is Article 11 concerning to digital marketers?

As any SEO professional tell you, Hyperlinks form the underbelly of the internet, which is why they are such an important part of Google’s organic search algorithm. Many content creators in the digital marketing industry rely on referencing third-party sources for information, and previously we have been able to do so under the assumption that it was legally okay. Now things seem a little less certain and the prospect of having to get permission every time you want to link to something would definitely throw a spanner in the works of many online marketing campaigns. With many calling it the “link tax”, it’s easy to understand where concern could come from.

While it is being touted as an actual ban on links by some, this appears not to be the case and hyperlinks that contain “individual words” of the article are directly exempted in the new proposal.

The problem – and what is causing a lot of uncertainty – is that the minute details of the law haven’t yet been fully decided. These include how news sources are actually defined, and surprisingly, how links are defined. It is now up to member states to interpret and implement the law and this uncertainty is a concern. Will “individual words” mean literally that and stop links from including even the title of the article in question?

In practice it seems clear that that this law will be targeted at websites like Google and news aggregators and that the “individual words” clause will be fairly loose. Links like the ones in this article should not be affected. Smaller startups, non-commercial websites and open source platforms are explicitly exempted and don’t have to worry either. In addition, the protections only last for one year.

Despite this, there are still concerns about the law. German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda is vehemently against the new legislation because similar legislation was passed in Germany and doesn’t appear to have resulted in any benefits, whilst causing issues with legal uncertainty; in her view this is going to happen again with the EU laws.

So, what should you do?

In spite of some of the worrying comments around the new law, we aren’t too worried. We can say for certain at this point that you won’t be charged for simply including a hyperlink in content you create. However it’s still worth keeping an eye on how things develop, as these laws will certainly impact websites that digital marketing campaigns rely on such as Google, Facebook and Youtube. Of course, Brexit means it might not matter at all for those of us in the UK but US tech firms have been instrumental in challenging this law, so being outside of the EU doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care.

This new law could also present an opportunity for enterprising marketers out there. With the new law creating a worry about linking to content, marking yours as “free to link to” could get you a few backlinks that you might not have otherwise achieved. So let me just take the opportunity to say that this article is indeed free to link to!

If you’ve had any thoughts or concerns on the “link tax” – or article 13 – let us know in the comments.

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