The European Commission has presented a controversial proposal for a European intellectual property rights strategy that it said will strengthen the knowledge-based economy and critics charge will lead to a censorship regime.
The proposals, presented Tuesday by Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier, call for copyright infringements on the Internet to be prevented "at the source." The Commission also wants to "foster cooperation of intermediaries, such as internet service providers." This, say civil liberties groups such as European Digital Rights (EDRi), is tantamount to asking ISPs to police their customers.
"It would force Internet companies such as hosters and access providers to obey the entertainment industries. In practice, turning these actors into a copyright police comes down to establishing a censorship regime, paving the way for dangerous breaches of fundamental rights," said Joe McNamee, EDRi Advocacy Coordinator.
The Commission's proposed strategy will form the backdrop to reform of the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive (IPRED) early next year. This directive provides for civil law measures allowing rights holders to enforce their intellectual property rights.
According to the Commission, the creative industry estimates that piracy has cost the European music, movie, TV and software industry €10 billion (US$14 billion) and more than 185,000 jobs in 2008 alone. Critics are angry that the Commission appears to be taking the industry's word for it rather than conducting independent, rigorous research.
"Those who exchange cultural works on the Internet are fans, not free-riders. Even the study commissioned by the infamous HADOPI -- the agency in charge of implementing the three-strike scheme in France -- showed that people who share cultural works online declare spending more on cultural goods than consumers who do not," said McNamee. "Similarly, live performances are booming and ticket sales for movie theatres are at all-time highs. Sharers are actually the creative sector's best customers."
Today, there are four times as many legal music downloads in the U.S. as in the E.U. because of the lack of legal offers and fragmented markets, according to the Commission, but digital rights organizations say that illegal downloads don't automatically represent revenue potential for the music industry.
If ISPs are indeed forced to begin policing their customers, it is likely that many will follow the so-called 'three strikes' rule already adopted in Ireland. The leading Irish ISP, Eircom, was forced through court action by the music industry to filter sites believed to allow illegal downloads and to kick users off the network if they are caught illegally downloading three times.
Spain, France and the U.K. have also looked at tackling piracy with access restrictions. However ISPs are reluctant to comply, with BT and TalkTalk in the U.K. mounting a legal challenge against such measures. Meanwhile in Belgium, Sabam (the Belgian Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers) sued Scarlet in 2004 over peer-to-peer copyright infringement and the Commission argued that national courts could impose monitoring, blocking and filtering obligations on Internet service providers.
Consumer groups are also angry at what they see as the Commission's plans to hold ISPs liable for piracy. "Such practices would turn ISPs into some sort of Internet police that monitors the online behavior of users and enforces copyright legislation. Fundamental rights of users will be jeopardized, namely the right to privacy and the right to due process," says BEUC, the European consumer lobby.
There was some general praise for the efforts by the Commission to harmonize laws across the region. "A true single market is one of the best things that could happen to European SMEs. They will be the primary beneficiaries of any strategy, including a uniform patent system, which harmonizes and simplifies processes. For innovative entrepreneurs, it is crucial that Europe has a one stop shop for IP protection across all Member States," said Jonathan Zuck, President of the Association for Competitive Technology, which represents vendors.