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European parliament abandons internet cut-off struggle

As France finally passes its harsh anti-piracy law and Britain readies its own bill to tackle illegal file-sharing, the European Parliament in a major U-turn has dropped its opposition to cutting internet access to scofflaw downloaders.

Representatives of the house have rowed back from insisting on the maintenance of an amendment to a package of telecoms laws that would have ruled out such manoeuvres.

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  • Ahead of elections, internet cut-off was a major issue (Photo: Flickr)

On Thursday (22 October), representatives of the parliament and the member states announced that at the beginning of November, they will hold formal talks along with the European Commission to resolve differences between the sides over the telecoms package.

"Parliament's delegation has agreed a compromise proposal that will serve as a basis for negotiations and towards which the Council and the commission will be able to converge", said French Socialist MEP and one of the main negotiators Catherine Trautmann.

The MEPs insisted that they remained champions of citizens' fundamental rights: "We will do all we can to achieve a good solution, but Council has to understand that parliament will defend without hesitation the freedom of the citizens it represents," said Spanish conservative Alejo Vidal-Quadras.

However, the compromise text, which would be the basis of discussions, no longer requires that only judicial authorities be allowed to cut off internet access.

Ahead of European elections in which the issue of internet freedoms suddenly pushed its way to the centre of public debate, the chamber seemed ready to mount the barricades in its battle to stop EU member states from attempting to introduce legislation which a majority of deputies considered a breach of human rights.

MEPs with strong majorities twice inserted an amendment to the telecoms package that would have forbidden member states from restricting internet access without judicial authorisation and only in exceptional circumstances.

On 6 October, telecoms ministers formally rejected the parliament's key amendment - the now infamous Amendment 138.

On almost all other issues, the two sides are in agreement.

France-based internet freedom pressure group La Quadrature du Net calls the compromise text "useless legalese" that essentially only restates existing rights protections and does nothing to explicitly rule out internet blocking.

"Amendment 138 will instead be replaced by a weak provision that does not carry any new important safeguard for citizen's freedoms," said spokesman for the group, Jeremie Zimmerman.

"This decision was taken consciously by rapporteur Catherine Trautmann, in order not to risk a confrontation with the Council [representing the member states] and to quickly finish with the telecoms package."

The move comes as France's anti-piracy legislation, under which internet access can be cut off, fines imposed and in some cases prison sentences handed down, was finally given the green light by the country's constitutional court.

Britain likewise is expected to table similar legislation in the coming weeks.

Mr Zimmerman said pressure from France and other member states has been fierce.

"Ministers of member states, who want to be able to regulate the net without interference from the judiciary, were rushing to kill amendment 138 and put an end to the negotiations."

The parliament, Council and commission delegates will meet behind closed doors on 4 November. They then have six to eight weeks to reach an overall agreement. The two sides - sitting as the full Council and parliament - then have a further six to eight weeks to approve the final agreement without amendment.

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