Re-breaking the internet

A wooden gavel on a white marble backdrop.

Re-breaking the internet

Internet at large, Users, Kathrin Jennewein, 18. January 2022

Our online livelihood on trial

There have been many threats to the livelihood of the free web: rampant advertising and a non-functioning online value exchange, privacy violations and invasive tracking, just to name a few of the larger touchstones. Yet, there are companies, like eyeo, that have fought to keep the internet what it should be: a fair, open, universally-accessible source of information.

However, a current court case, the 2021 copyright lawsuit brought against eyeo by the large German conglomerate Axel Springer, sought to dictate that the way browsers interpret HTML language used to render a website page should be protected under copyright law — which would have effectively made it illegal for any technology or any consumer to alter a website page’s appearance. Luckily, as has been the case in previous lawsuits directed toward limiting user rights that eyeo has fought, the court ruled against Axel Springer, and in favor of the continued freedom of users to configure their browsing experiences as they wish. This is not just our victory; this is the victory of the internet.

A close call: what it would have meant…

It’s important to understand the ramifications of what this lawsuit could have meant. This is especially the case because this battle will continue to reemerge, and the fight is not just ours, but also that of users in general. The changes to the visualization of websites on private devices would have brought us back to a time when users didn’t have a say in how things worked online. Moreover, this change would have affected more than just users and would have also created a ripple effect for browsers and other stakeholders in the online world. It would have essentially changed the internet as we know it.

So let’s take a second to analyze what that reality would look like.

Most of the modern browser features that the internet ecosystem enjoys would become instantly illegal, and copyright sanctions would become enforceable. That means that any modification of the CSS of any kind would be out, including all privacy and anti-tracking technologies, language translation features, accessibility utilities for the blind and people with reading disabilities, ad blockers and so much more. A user would essentially lose the ability to have any influence on their experience and would have to accept every page they visit at face value; they would also be exposed to privacy threats without any way to protect themselves, as any changes to the operation and design of a website (which is how all of these extensions work) would violate the copyright of a website.

Intervention? User losses?

But that couldn’t be something we’d just have to accept, right? Well, the only possibility for intervention would involve specific case by case requests: that means the burden would fall upon code developers and ordinary users to seek explicit permission from a website publisher to grant an exception to run their browser features — before visiting each and every website! Which, apart from being unsustainable, would also result in a broken internet experience where every door leads to a “naked”, unprotected and unpersonalized experience (think about language translation and accessibility for people with reading disabilities, let alone the stress-inducing reality of no ad-filtering or ad-blocking capabilities).

In a worst case scenario, this would mean that any ordinary user who utilizes (even unknowingly) browser extensions or features that interpret HTML differently than intended by the author would be automatically deemed as infringing on copyright law and subjected to a cease and desist letter. More frightening still, any developer who writes code for an offending browser feature could be liable to pay damages that are retroactive for any lost revenues claimed by a website owner.

To provide more context, some extreme examples of violations for users could include your browser blocking cookies and/or trackers to comply with GDPR and/or CCPA, and you would be liable for infringement. Or you are using an app like “GameofSpoils” that prevents you from seeing spoilers for Game of Thrones, and yet would result in another penalty-liable scenario. One of the most outrageous things I’ve heard, which would be equally enforceable, would be if you were blocking pornography images: that’s right, the site could go after you for not viewing it “as intended”.

The battle continues

As should be clear, without the ability to change the function and design of a website on your private device, a lot of the fairness and freedom that eyeo and many others have fought for online would be taken from users. For many, if not all, that should sound like a bleak reality. But fighting for user rights, as we are currently doing, and have been doing in 16 previous court cases (all of which we’ve won) is our mission. However, it’s important for us all to spread the word and raise awareness, because user rights will continue to be brought into jeopardy by large business concerns (this is still just the beginning), and it should be the mission of us all to defend a fair and prosperous internet.

Here’s to another battle won. Now let’s get ready for the next one.


Image by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash