Internet access providers can be requested to block websites infringing copyright, the European Court of Justice said yesterday (27 March) in a historic ruling aimed at limiting online piracy.
“An internet service provider may be ordered to block its customers’ access to a copyright-infringing website,” reads a statement issued by the European Court in reference to a case brought to the EU judges by the Austrian Supreme Court.
Two companies holding movie rights had asked the Austrian judges to prohibit the access to a website where some of their copyrighted films could be viewed and downloaded for free.
At the request of the two companies, the Austrian courts prohibited UPC Telekabel Wien, an internet service provider established in Austria, from providing its customers with access to that site.
The national court then referred the matter to the EU Court to seek legal confirmation of such a ruling. The EU judges duly upheld the Austrian decision.
Setting a precedent
The ruling sets a precedent defining the role of access providers, such as telecoms or cable companies, in dealing with online piracy.
Past decisions by the Court had opposed a policing role for internet access providers, which were initially asked to filter online content to prevent copyright breaches.
The Luxembourg-based judges rejected that approach on the grounds that it was disproportionate.
Yet yesterday’s ruling clarifies that service providers still have a role to play in the fight against piracy.
“An ISP which allows its customers to access protected subject-matter, made available to the public on the internet by a third party, is an intermediary whose services are used to infringe a copyright,” reads a note issued by the Court.
Because ISPs have a role in the copyright infringements, they can therefore be legitimately asked to prevent illegal activities by blocking access to specific websites, the Court concludes.
This is not a filtering activity, because ISPs will be requested to do so by copyright holders damaged by the violations. ISPs will not have to carry out controls on their own initiative, as the filtering proposals implied.
The Court was also careful to underline that in obliging ISPs to block access to specific websites, national authorities have to respect the right of service providers to conduct their business and the right of users to access information. Both principles are crucial in the EU legislation.
Therefore, national judges have to make sure that possible restrictive measures respect these basic principles in order to be considered lawful.
Music and movie producers have pushed initiatives to stop illegal downloading or streaming of copyrighted material on the Internet, with mixed success.
In November 2011, the European Court of Justice issued a historic ruling establishing that member states cannot impose the filtering of the Internet for the purpose of preventing illegal downloads of copyrighted files.
This ruling was reinforced in February 2012, when the Court stated that online social networks cannot be forced to block users from downloading content illegally, as this would push up their costs and infringe privacy.
Right-holders suffered another setback when the European Parliament rejected ACTA, an international anti-piracy agreement that was heavily criticised for curbing online freedom and inviting large-scale Internet surveillance.
European Court of Justice
- Ruling on copyright-infringing websites (27 March 2014)