EU telecoms law reforms blocked by dispute over Net access

EU lawmakers rejected a compromise over a law to deal with Internet piracy last night, defending citizens' right to access information online.

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European Union lawmakers failed to overcome the last remaining obstacle to a broad reform of the EU's telecommunications laws late Tuesday, when a committee of the European Parliament rejected a compromise on the issue of how to deal with Internet piracy.

While national governments including those in France and the UK, two of the largest of the EU's 27 members, push for greater powers to crack down on copyright abuse by illegal file sharers, the industry committee of the European Parliament stood by an earlier pledge to protect citizens from what it views as over-zealous policing of the internet.

France is in the process of adopting a "three strikes" rule that would give a government agency powers to ban individuals from the Internet if they are caught illegally sharing music or video files three times in a year. It has also been leading the drive to export this approach to the EU as a whole.

The European Parliament last year called for restraint, demanding that any move to bar someone from the Internet should be approved first by a court order.

Despite numerous attempts to bridge the gap between these two positions in recent weeks, the Parliament's industry committee voted overwhelmingly late Tuesday to stick to its original position that "no restriction may be imposed on the fundamental rights and freedoms of end users, without a prior ruling by the judicial authorities."

Efforts will continue to find a compromise before the European Parliament votes on the telecommunications reforms in a plenary session in the first week of May, the committee said early Wednesday.

For the reforms to become law, the Parliament and Council of Ministers, composed of representatives of national governments, must find a compromise that both can agree on. Failure to reach agreement by the time the Parliament votes could result in the whole package of reforms being put on ice until after the Parliamentary elections in June.

However, there is a possibility that the unsettled issue of Internet access and copyright protection, covered by the e-privacy directive, may get separated from the remainder of the package so it doesn't derail the whole thing.

"That's what happened the last time the telecoms rules were updated. It could theoretically happen again but no one wants to consider this option until it is clear there are no alternatives," said one person involved in the reform process who asked not to be named.

Most of the telecoms reforms deal with structural issues, such as the creation of an EU-wide telecoms regulatory body; new powers to separate operators' network operations from their services divisions in order to safeguard fair competition, and the distribution of radio frequencies freed up by the move from analog to digital TV.

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