EU Lawmakers Seek Compromise in Internet Access Row

European Union lawmakers renewed efforts Thursday to tackle the politically charged issue of whether governments can bar people from using the Internet, the same day that a new study was released claiming that Internet blocking by national governments is increasingly commonplace in Europe.

National governments and the European Parliament announced that they would open formal conciliation talks in a bid to overcome the obstacle to a wide-ranging group of new laws for the telecoms sector.

The laws, dubbed the telecoms package, were scuppered in the summer, when the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to insert a clause into one of the laws that would make it illegal for a national government to ban a European citizen from accessing the Internet. National governments refused to accept the Parliament's amendment and the whole package of laws has been held up as a result.

The European Parliament, the Council of national governments represented by Sweden, and the author of the telecoms laws, the European Commission held a three-way meeting Thursday, agreeing to reconvene on Nov. 4.

"Parliament's delegation has agreed on a compromise proposal that will serve as a basis for negotiations and towards which the Council and the Commission will be able to converge," said French social democrat MEP Catherine Trautmann, describing Thursday morning's informal meeting as "a promising start" to the official phase of conciliation.

A copy of the proposed new text was leaked by Christian Engstrom, a Swedish computer programmer and free speech activist who was elected to the European Parliament in the summer as a representative of the fledgling Pirate Party.

Government attempts to block access to the Internet are mounting throughout Europe, but look set to backfire, according to a new study funded by financier George Soros' Open Society Institute.

Entitled "Internet Blocking: Balancing Cybercrime Responses in Democratic Societies," the study shows how efforts to block Internet content are spreading throughout Europe.

In Germany, Britain, Italy and Scandinavia, the measures are intended to block pages containing child pornography, while in France the proposed "three strikes" law would cut access to users who download pirated content.

In Turkey, which borders the E.U. in the southeast and is trying to join the group, the telecommunications ministry has blocked more than 6,000 Web sites, including YouTube, Geocities, DailyMotion and WordPress, the study found.

It concludes that the measures are ineffective in achieving their stated goals because many technical ways exist to get around blocking technologies.

Attempts to block offensive content all too often backfire, said one of the study's authors, Cormac Callanan, CEO of Irish consultancy, Aconite Internet Solutions.

"Technically, it is difficult. Legally, it is problematic. Above all, it represents a real threat to the free transfer of information and conflicts with basic democratic principles," he said in a statement

The study has already been endorsed by two members of Parliament: British liberal Graham Watson and German social democrat Birgit Sippel. "Protection of children is a matter of the utmost importance, but this does not mean that the Commission can propose measures that may well be entirely ineffectual but which will have long-term consequences for the right of freedom of communication in Europe," Watson said.

Both politicians have in the past sat on the European Parliament's civil liberties committee, and were involved in debating Internet access issues contained in the proposed telecoms package.

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