ISPs around the world may be forced to snoop on their subscribers and cut them off if they are found to have shared copyright protected music on the Internet, under an international agreement being promoted by the US.
Countries including Japan, Canada, South Korea, Australia as well as the European Union and US have been negotiating an anticounterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA) over the past two years to combat the growing problem of counterfeit products ranging from designer clothes to downloadable music.
The countries are due to discuss the ACTA at a meeting in South Korea, focusing specifically on the issue of Internet piracy. The US has drafted the text of the chapter on the Internet.
In a summary of the US's position shared orally with trade officials at the European Commission in September, signatories of the accord must "provide for third party liability." The Commission informed all 27 countries in the EU of the US position in a memo seen by IDG News service.
Under existing laws in the US, the EU and elsewhere, ISPs are granted immunity from prosecution for illegal activities carried out by subscribers across their networks. This new global trade agreement appears to contradict the legal status quo, said Michael Geist, a law professor at Ottawa University, Canada.
This provision would mean that every country that signs up to ACTA must allow content owners such as record companies and Hollywood studios to sue ISPs for failing to stop their subscribers from illegally sharing copyright protected material such as music and movies.
Europe appears willing to back up the US's plans to make ISPs more liable for the content on their networks, according to Joe McNamee, European affairs specialist for Digital Rights Europe, a free speech and privacy pressure group.
The prevailing EU law on the matter of ISP liability is the ecommerce directive, which grants service providers protection from prosecution as long as they are just the conduit and not involved with the sender or receiver of illegal content.
"The Commission appears to be opening up ISPs to third party liability, even though the European Parliament has expressly said this mustn't happen," McNamee said, adding that ACTA looks likely to erode European citizens' civil liberties.
The European Commission wasn't immediately available to comment.