European Court of Justice rejects 'SOPA-like' online piracy filter

The highest court in Europe has ruled that widespread SOPA-like filtering of peer-to-peer is unlawful, and breaches an existing directive.

Courts in the European Union cannot order web or broadband providers to filter content on their networks, like peer-to-peer networks or alleged copyright infringing files, the European Court of Justice said today.

As per the judgement handed down today, while content providers can ask Internet service providers to block access to specific websites and domains, wider filtering of content would be in breach of the European E-Commerce Directive.

Record labels and film studios cannot use the courts to instruct Internet service and broadband providers to track your content, block access to sites, or kick you off the web completely.

But the ruling, though a step in the right direction for privacy campaigners and freedom of speech activists, is not perfect and offers a few caveats of its own.

The judgement ends a long running battle between Belgian web provider Scarlet and rights-holder group Sabam, dating back to 2004. The case began when Belgian rights management group took Scarlet to court over its customers' use of unauthorised peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted material.

A court in Brussels at first ordered Scarlet to filter its network to prevent further infringement on Sabam's works. But the web provider, unhappy in the decision, appealed to the Brussels Court of Appeal.

Scarlet's appeal complaint was that the first ruling was in breach of the European E-Commerce Directive, which bans the forcing of Internet service providers in setting up monitoring and surveillance on their networks.

The directive does however allow copyright holders to seek legal discourse should their works be misused.

The court was unable to reach a decision on its own accord, and sought out assistance from the European Court of Justice, the highest court of appeal in the continent.

As per the SOPA bill currently in the U.S. House of Representatives, web providers would be forced to invest in traffic and communication monitoring, perhaps even on the scale of the controversial deep-packed inspection technology, to filter out potentially copyright infringing content.

The European Court of Justice however sided with Scarlet after it said the move would affect its business, because it would be forced to "install a complicated, costly, permanent computer system at its own expense".

While filtering is not currently in place in the UK as such, some web providers have used packet-sniffing and data monitoring to seek out unlawful file-sharers before, but in the case of Virgin Media, the trial was subsequently dropped.

Separate legislation can be used, beyond the Digital Economy Act -- which has yet to be fully enacted due to the lacking "code of practice" necessary to trigger piracy notifications -- to block access to websites.

For instance, earlier this month, telecoms and broadband giant BT was forced by a court to block access to file-sharing site Newzbin2, and pay for the privilege of blocking the site to its customers, after rights holders turned to the Copyright, Design and Patent Act.

The Digital Economy Act, considered to be the UK's anti-piracy bill, currently being disputed in the courts by two major broadband companies, could also be affected by this ruling. The broadband giants claim that the rules set forth in the Act also breach the European E-Commerce Directive.

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