E.U. Telecom Law Set to Enshrine the Right to Information

A Europe-wide law forcing Internet service providers to cut subscribers off from the Internet if they illegally download copyright-protected music or movies isn't going to happen as part of an ongoing review of telecom rules, telecom commissioner Viviane Reding said in an interview.

Speaking after lengthy negotiations Tuesday evening with members of the European Parliament and representatives of the 27 national governments of the European Union, Reding said that the issue of online piracy has yet to be resolved in the so-called telecom package of laws being updated to better suit the age of high-speed Internet.

However, the question is whether to strengthen language enshrining citizens' rights to information, she said, and not the opposite.

France, among other countries, is keen to use the telecom review as a way of introducing its three strikes law at a European level. The French law states that if you are caught illegally downloading copyright-protected music or movies three times, then you should be banned from the Internet.

Some parliamentarians sympathetic to the French government's argument tried to replace a clause stating that "Internet access should not be denied as a sanction by governments or private companies" with another clause that "Internet access should not be abused for illegal activities."

But most parliamentarians appear to oppose such a move, and many view the French law as draconian and contrary to citizens' rights to information. Reding said she agrees with them, and she described people's right to access information as a "fundamental right."

"This debate about piracy is causing a big fight, but it has nothing to do with telecoms and should not be taking place in the telecoms review," she said.

"But since MEPs want to strengthen citizens' rights in this area, I support that. I can't argue with a clause that reaffirms basic European values," she added.

If a person is suspected of stealing copyright-protected material, then prosecutors "should first get a court order before telling the Internet service provider to cut the person's Internet connection," she said.

France isn't alone in pushing for greater copyright protection online. The U.K. is also considering a similar idea to the French three strikes rule. However, instead of circumventing the courts, the U.K. approach appears to favor formal legal steps involving a judge.

Both the French and the British rules are still being debated. French lawmakers will vote on aspects of the three strikes law at the end of this month, while a public consultation on the topic closes at the end of this week.

Technology firms fear that the next step in fighting online piracy will be a requirement for them to include filtering software in their products that would make peer-to-peer file sharing and other illegal-content distribution techniques impossible.

"We were hoping the lawmakers would introduce language into the telecoms package that would prevent member states from introducing such moves, and we are disappointed they didn't. That threat still remains," said Francisco Mingorance, an E.U. affairs specialist at the Business Software Alliance, a lobby group representing firms including Microsoft and Apple.

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