EU telecoms reform package agreed

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Law enforcement agencies will be able to cut off the connections of Internet users suspected of illegally downloading films and music, lawmakers and EU ministers agreed in the small hours of this morning (5 November).

A committee made up of EU government representatives, members of the European Parliament and the European Commission ironed out differences over the bill between the three EU bodies, paving the way for the final rubber-stamping of the EU’s telecoms package. 

EU lawmakers sent the legislation back to the Council in May amid concerns that the proposed bill would not adequately protect the rights of Internet users. “I am very happy that we have reached an agreement on the telecoms package,” said Asa Torstensson, communication minister for Sweden, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

The telecoms package has been the subject of vehement debate between the Parliament and the Council. The endless discussions focused on Amendment 138, which stresses the need for “prior ruling by the judicial authorities” for those suspected of illegal downloading. 

The most recent text from the Parliament made substantial concessions to the Council’s thinking and deleted references to a “prior” ruling at a “judicial authority” (EURACTIV 23/10/09). 

The text now reads: “A prior, fair and impartial procedure shall be guaranteed, including the right to be heard of the person or persons concerned, subject to the need for appropriate conditions and procedural arrangements in duly substantiated cases of urgency in conformity with European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The right to an effective and timely judicial review shall be guaranteed.”

“This agreement strengthens the competitiveness among enterprises and enhances the consumer protection in Europe, which will lead to […] better and less expensive broadband services and substantially stronger protection for all Internet users,” Torstensson said. 

The proposed reform is supposed to beef up consumers’ contractual rights and create a pan-EU supervisory body to improve how the 27-nation bloc’s telecoms rules are applied so no operator can be shielded from competition. 

Monique Goyens,  director-general of European consumer group BEUC, argues that "citizens should not be cut-off from the Internet without a fair trial nor must consumers be treated as pirates or criminals. We are in the 21st century and such draconian measures have no place in an open society. People have rights that cannot and must not be overlooked for the sake of the music and film industry". 

"This rather unambitious provision will now be up for interpretation, and it remains to be seen whether it will invalidate Net access restrictions such as 'three strike' policies," said Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of citizens' advocacy group La Quadrature du Net

Innocenzo Genna, chairman of the European Competitive Telecoms Association (ECTA), said that "alongside provisions on users' rights, the package contains important proposals that confirm Europe's commitment to open and competitive telecoms markets [such as the power for regulators to separate dominant firms if they fail to abide by competition rules and a clear signal that fibre networks should be opened for competition]. These measures will benefit consumers through more choice and diversity in high speed broadband services". 

On 13 November 2007, the European Commission proposed a general review of rules governing electronic communications. The package provided for the establishment of a new EU telecoms authority, the introduction of functional separation to spur competition, a review of radio spectrum management and a range of consumer protection measures (see EURACTIV LinksDossier). 

The new rules were approved by the European Parliament at first reading in September 2008. But the EU Council of Ministers took divergent positions on many issues, triggering a range of inter-institutional negotiations which ended up with apparent compromises in March and April 2009. 

The most controversial issue concerns the protection of Internet users, enshrined in the notorious Amendment 138. In a surprise move, the Parliament blocked the reform in May 2009 by rejecting an earlier compromise with member states over the protection of Internet users' rights (EURACTIV 07/05/09). 

The rejection came in response to a draft French anti-piracy bill, which had caused uproar among MEPs and consumer groups because it suggested that the Internet connections of users of peer-to-peer services could be cut without the prior intervention of judicial authorities. 

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