EU breaks deadlock in debate over right to Internet access

After months of often bitter debate, European Union lawmakers reached agreement on how to preserve citizen's rights to Internet access in a meeting that ended in the early hours of Thursday morning.

The issue, which pits citizens' civil liberties against the rights of content owners such as record and movie companies to protect creative works on the Internet, has blocked the passage of a wide range of laws collectively dubbed the telecoms package.

Although the compromise reached by representatives of the European Parliament, the 27 national governments and the European Commission has still to be confirmed, it is seen as a watershed moment for the proposed laws, which aim to enhance competition among telecoms providers and to adapt users' rights to better suit the Internet age.

The text of the telecoms package now contains a new Internet freedom provision that states that access to the Internet is a human right of every E.U. citizen, and that if authorities take away that right people must have the opportunity to defend themselves; citizens also have an automatic right to mount a legal challenge.

However, the text does not demand that authorities in the 27 countries of the E.U. obtain a court order before cutting off someone's Internet connection, as the European Parliament demanded when it last voted on the issue in early summer.

The issue is very sensitive, and not just in Europe, where a number of countries including France and U.K. are passing laws threatening to sever users' Internet connections if they are found to have breached the copyright on music or movies.

The subject is under discussion at a gathering in South Korea this week. The U.S. is trying to garner support from other countries for a treaty that would force Internet service providers to take action against subscribers to their networks involved in illegal file sharing.

The so-called Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has attracted condemnation from many law experts and civil liberties activists because of the secretive way it is being drafted, and for the dramatic changes it would impose on the way people engage with the Internet.

The European Parliament has been criticized for caving in on the issue of prior judicial review. It was forced to back down because its call for a court order to be issued before someone is cut off from the Internet was legally uncertain, it said in a statement Thursday.

"There were serious doubts as to the legal validity of the amendment, as it would seem to go beyond the European Community's competences in this field," the Parliament said.

The Parliament's now infamous Amendment 138 would "arguably have required a harmonization of Member States' judicial systems," it said, adding that if it was adopted as part of the telecoms package, it faced being annulled by the European Court of Justice at a later date.

The European Commission welcomed the breakthrough. "It is very good news for Europe's citizens," said Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Telecoms and the Information Society. The Commission initiated the reforms in the telecoms package.

"This Internet freedom provision is unprecedented across the globe and a strong signal that the E.U. takes fundamental rights very seriously, in particular when it comes to the information society," Reding said.

Agreement on the issue of Internet access means that the whole package can be adopted at the E.U. level by early next year, Reding said. Member states would then have 18 months to transpose the laws into their national statute books.

The telecoms package creates a new E.U.-wide regulatory body with powers to tackle monopoly abuse by former state-owned telecoms incumbents, including the power to force them to separate their networks from services they distribute through those networks, if they are found to be competing unfairly against other service providers.

The package aims to safeguard the neutrality of the Internet and to better protect people's privacy while they are online. It also paves the way for the redistribution of radio frequencies freed up by the transfer from analog to digital TV.

Greater competition and better consumer protection will strengthen the single E.U.-wide market for telecoms, thus bringing down prices, boosting innovation and helping to give all citizens access to high speed Internet, the Commission said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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