A high-level European vote on communications legislation will take place on Monday evening, raising fears that alleged file-sharers will be denied internet access by their internet service providers.
The vote concerns the passage of a parcel of laws called the 'Telecoms Package'. The Telecoms Package contains several amendments — recently added by British Conservative MEPs Malcolm Harbour and Syed Kamall — that cover copyright issues. Some experts and campaigners argue that these amendments are worded to lay the foundation for so-called 'three strikes and you're out' legislation to be introduced in Europe.
Such legislation, enthusiastically backed by many in the content industry, would have internet service providers (ISPs) issue warning letters to those customers they think have been illegally downloading or uploading copyrighted material, before disconnecting them. The EU voted against a similar proposition in April, and some are now arguing that those in favour are trying to sneak it in by burying it in a hefty policy document that covers mostly unrelated concerns.
At the forefront of the campaign against the Telecoms Package amendments is a French group called La Quadrature du Net (Squaring the net). The most strident support for a 'three strikes' law from a national leader has come from the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. La Quadrature, which describes itself as a 'citizen group', has claimed the amendments "seriously threaten the open architecture of the internet, [the] mere-conduit principle, and the rights and fundamental freedoms of its users".
Lilian Edwards, a law professor at the University of Southampton, has written extensively on the subject on her Pangloss blog. Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Monday, she said two amendments in particular worried her. Harbour's Internal Market Committee report amendment states that "national regulatory authorities and other relevant authorities shall also, as far as appropriate, promote co-operation between undertakings providing electronic communications networks and/or services and the sectors interested in the protection and promotion of lawful content in electronic communication networks and services".
Such "co-operation" is tied in the amendment to another amendment in the same document, which would force ISPs to distribute "public interest information [about, among other things] the most common uses of electronic communications services to carry out unlawful activities or to disseminate harmful content".
Another section states that "such public interest information should be produced either as a preventative measure or in response to particular problems". This wording, argued Edwards, could be interpreted either as calling for the public to be educated about the illegality of some file-sharing, or calling for ISPs to be forced to send warning letters to, then disconnect, users who flout these rules.
"Though it may be that these amendments have been introduced in innocence, I think they are definitely wide enough to provide a legitimate foundation in EC law for 'three strikes and you're out'," said Edwards, adding that she thought disconnecting users would in any case be a disproportionate response, and, therefore, probably against European human-rights legislation.
The vote on the Telecoms Package will take place at 7pm on Monday.