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27th Feb 2017

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Commission backs internet users over content providers

  • Ms Reding reacts with horror at the suggestion newspapers receive public funding (Photo: Sandrine Muscarella)

The European Parliament's rejection of a proposed "three strikes" law - that would see internet users have their connection cut off if they have been found to repeatedly violate copyright - must be respected, the commission said at an EUobserver-organised conference on internet rights.

"We have to respect the view of the parliament," information society commissioner Viviane Reding said at the Brussels event on Wednesday (8 October), referring to the "Bono Amendment" approved on 24 September by a large majority of MEPs in consideration of a wider telecoms bill.

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The amendment states that: "No restriction may be imposed on the rights and freedoms of end users ... without a prior ruling by the judicial authorities" - language that forbids moves such as those currently under consideration by French lawmakers.

The draft French laws, popularly known as "three strikes" policies and also referred to as "graduated response," see users receive two warnings after having been found by copyright owners to be violating the law.

The commissioner said that the parliament's amendment was an important re-statement of citizens' fundamental rights, and that cutting off someone's access to the internet also cut them off from searching for jobs, from health records and a range of other vital information.

"Too often when we talk about stakeholders in the world of the internet, we think of the telcos [telecommunications companies] and the rights holders as the only stakeholders," she said during the debate.

"But our citizens are stakeholders too," she added.

Last November, French President Nicholas Sarkozy backed an initiative in partnership with the record industry and internet providers that would see internet service providers (ISPs) automatically disconnect customers who illegally download copyrighted material.

The French president's scheme, the so-called Mission Olivennes, requires that ISPs disconnect customers using an automated system. The Mission - named after the head of record and electronics shop FNAC, Denis Olivennes, one of the main backers of the initiative - would also see ISPs test filtering technologies.

Instead, the commissioner encouraged the development of new business models as one way of tackling online piracy.

"Nobody has yet presented the perfect new business model," she said. "Telcos, internet service providers, content producers all need to re-assess their role in the value chain."

She hailed Youtube as a great example, however, of how content producers and service providers can work to benefit each other rather than the one cannibalising the other.

"The Youtube platform tells the rights owner if his content has been uploaded to Youtube. He then has a choice: leave it up as it is, add advertising - thus monetising the content- or requesting that the content be taken down."

Pirates must pay

An economist that has advised Paris on the Olivennes plan, Olivier Bomsel, defended the French scheme at the EUobserver internet rights symposium, however.

"It's time to raise the cost of piracy for users," he said, adding that consumers had become accustomed to not paying for content in the "first phase of the internet" and that now, in its second phase, they had to learn that content has to be paid for.

Asked what would happen if the French initiative fails, he replied: "It's just not an option."

The record industry, needless to say "very much welcomed the Olivennes endeavour as proportionate and measured," said Chris Ancliff, general counsel for music giant EMI, pointing out that his sector was losing 95 percent of its business to online piracy.

"When I exceed the speed limit too many times, I know I will lose my licence for six months. I and most other drivers accept that as normal."

But when it comes to the internet, he said, there is a different attitude, adding that society "should not turn away from regulation simply because it's online."

"As human beings, we don't like rules and regulations, but we don't live in an ideal world and we can see from the financial crisis what happens without regulation."

"There is some assumption that regulation stifles creativity," said Mr Ancliff, who wants ISPs forced to filter and remove illegal copies of content. "I beg to differ - a free-for-all benefits nobody."

No to 'internet police'

Very much opposing the record industry's push for more regulation of how copyrighted content appears on the internet, the telecoms industry has argued it has no interest in censoring online content.

Michael Bartholemew, of the European Telecommunications Network Operators, the trade association representing the large telecoms firms and internet service providers (ISPs), railed against the French initiative.

"It turns ISPs into the internet police," he said, pointing out that French data protection authorities had raised concerns about Sarkozy's plan regarding civil liberties and that the "overwhelming majority of MEPs are backing away from the three-strikes approach."

The solution to piracy was education of consumers about how piracy is wrong, Mr Bartholomew added: "We need to reinforce awareness of the use of copyright amongst users," he said, both via dedicated websites and notices included in bills from internet providers warning that piracy is illegal.

"New, market-driven business models are the best way to prevent piracy in which citizens' rights are also guaranteed," Mr Bartholomew argued.

He highlighted "Comes With Music" - Nokia's new service launched last week - as one business model that may finally serve both the interests of consumers for free music and for composers to be paid for the music they compose.

Comes With Music includes a handset that will retail for around €130. A portion of this will go to music rights owners and in return, users win access for a year to unlimited downloads from a library of 2 million tracks that - crucially - they get to keep even if they decide to quit the service.

Releasing control

Simon Hampton, Google's European public policy director, sided with the telecoms industry lobbyist. "The idea of imposing filtering on the internet is absolutely scary territory for freedom of expression," he said, adding that "control" is the heart of the matter.

"Content producers are worried that their works are arriving on sites like Youtube in a way that is not controlled by the rights holder," Mr Hampton argued.

But on the other hand people releasing control is essential to the building of fresh content, such as "mash-ups" - the combining and recombining of other content to produce new works, he said. "That is what's exciting a lot of young people [online.]"

"There is a huge long tail of capacity that is now competing for the eyeballs that have traditionally gone towards professionally produced content."

Mr Hampton also defended Google News, the company's news aggregation service, which has come under attack from some newspaper owners who accuse it of stealing their content.

He said Google has an interest in readers clicking through to the original article, as Google often serves up advertising to the online version of a paper, and if readers click on the ad, Google profits. The company does not profit, he said, if readers don't click past a headline on Google News.

Reding horror

Ms Reding told the audience she was sympathetic to the piracy of news content as well. "I know that problem journalists are having with pirated content on the net and [the commission is] looking at that too."

Newspapers have for some years now struggled with websites copying their content, the explosion of information providers online, and competition from blogging, all the while their advertising money bleeds away to the multiplicity of news-oriented sites on the internet.

But the commissioner reacted with horror at the suggestion that one of the new models for newspapers could be a redistribution of revenues from ISPs to newspapers or public funding.

"No!" she exclaimed clutching her chest. "There should be no public funding of newpapers! They should be doing their own thing."

"If you want to have democracy, you have to have media pluralism," she said. "[Newspaper revenues] have to come from advertising."

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