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4th Mar 2024

Parliament delivers surprise victory for internet access rights

  • MEPs have delayed the telecoms package for months (Photo: EUobserver)

In a last-minute show of defiance over citizens' right to internet access, the European Parliament has rejected a deal on a bill that would have overhauled the telecommunications sector, delaying the legislation for months.

Strasbourg declined on Wednesday to ratify a compromise between its own representatives and those of the Council of Ministers, which represents the member states, on a wide-ranging telecoms package.

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The bill focuses on changes to telecoms infrastructure, further liberalising the sector and creating an EU-level telecoms regulator.

But a battle has exploded in the last few weeks over a parliamentary amendment that aimed to prevent countries from passing legislation similar to France's ‘three-strikes' bill that would cut off internet access if users are repeatedly caught downloading music, films and other content without permission of the copyright holder.

Smelling defence of internet access as a key vote-winner in next month's European elections, particularly amongst the young, MEPs have repeatedly refused to budge on the issue, demanding that access can only be cut off by court order.

France, wanting to save what has become a flagship piece of legislation for President Nicholas Sarkozy, whose wife is a pop star, lobbied other member states heavily on the issue.

As EUobserver reported last week, a compromise deal reached between the two sides on Tuesday (28 April) said that internet users had their internet access cut had a "right to a judgment by an independent and impartial tribunal."

The language however was sufficiently ambiguous that both MEPs and France claimed victory.

Catherine Trautmann, the deputy responsible for shepherding the legislation through the parliament, said she was confident that the wording in the compromise meant that a court order was required before access could be cut.

French culture minister Christine Albanel meanwhile believed that the compromise meant that websurfers who had their internet access cut had a right to judicial appeal - but only after the deed had been done.

The deal unravelled on Wednesday morning however, when the full sitting of the parliament supported a late amendment 407 to 57, with 171 abstentions, re-inserting stronger language requiring governments to obtain a court ruling before access can be cut.

Package delayed for months

The European Commission, which has supported the parliament's view on internet access since throughout the legislative process, again strongly backed the result.

"This amendment is an important restatement of the fundamental rights of EU citizens," said information society commissioner Viviane Reding. "For many, it is of very high symbolic and political value. I call on the Council of Ministers to assess the situation very carefully, also in the light of the importance of the telecoms reform for the sector and for the recovery of our European economy."

Telecoms ministers are to meet on 12 June, where they must decide whether to accept the package as a whole, including the parliament's amendment, or whether a ‘conciliation' process between the two sides and mediated by the commission will have to begin in the autumn.

Ms Reding said she would work closely with the current, Czech EU presidency to try to achieve an agreement in the next few weeks.

However, Ms Trautmann is all but certain that the Council will never agree to the package with the amendment included.

"The whole package will go to conciliation," Ms Trautmann told the chamber after the vote.

The Council now has until September to respond with its own text and the parliament then has up to eight weeks to convene a conciliation committee.

The Council would then under the chairmanship of the next, Swedish EU presidency have to negotiate with a freshly elected parliament - which is certain to have greater numbers of internet freedom advocates than the current chamber.

This conciliation process itself may then take up to another eight weeks, the result of which would still then have to return to the full sitting of the parliament for a third reading.

Sources close to the deliberations believe it could be as late as February before a final decision is reached.

'Courageous'

The European Consumers' Organisation, BEUC, regretted the delay to the legislation that the rejection will cause, but said it was worth it to prevent ‘three-strikes'-style legislation.

Monique Goyens, the group's director-general, said: "Today's vote is victory for consumers," and called on the next parliament to explicitly prohibit "such draconian laws".

La Quadrature du Net, a French internet freedoms pressure group, cheered the "courage" of MEPs.

"The strong statement for the access to the Internet as a fundamental right demonstrates that the parliament can be courageous and reject the pressure to compromise when essential values are at stake," said Gérald Sédrati-Dinet, an analyst with the group.

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