26th Feb 2024

Commission gives Paris a pass over piracy bill

  • Ms Reding says she is sympathetic to the European parliament's perspective (Photo: European Community, 2006)

The French Senate on Wednesday (13 May) approved the government's ‘three strikes' bill, safe in the knowledge that the European Commission will not launch any legal action against Paris as a result of the legislation, which falls afoul of the wishes of the European Parliament.

The law, which cuts off internet access to users found to be repeatedly downloading copyright content without the permission of the owner, was passed 189 to 14. Opposition Socialist deputies boycotted the vote.

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On Tuesday, the French lower house also passed the bill, meaning the law has surmounted all hurdles and will likely be enacted some time in the autumn.

Under the legislation, a scofflaw web-surfer is first sent an email warning, then a letter through the post and, finally, as the third 'strike,' her internet access can be interrupted for up to a year - a series of actions also referred to as a ‘graduated response'.

Critics of the legislation, including a strong majority in the European Parliament, say cutting off internet access is a draconian measure for so minor an infraction and worry that the new government agency - the Hadopi (the Haute Autorite pour la Diffusion des Oeuvres et la Protection des droits sur Internet, or High Authority for the Diffusion of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet) - created with the responsibility of carrying out the graduated response is able to assess the guilt of a citizen and impose a penalty without any legal procedure.

As a result, the European Parliament on 6 May attached an amendment to a piece of legislation dealing with the liberalisation of telecommunications infrastructure requiring that internet cut-off be imposed only after the acquisition of a court order.

In the wake of the French National Assembly's passage of the bill, the author of the EU parliament's amendment, French Socialist MEP Guy Bono called on the European Commission, the EU's executive body, to launch legal action against Paris for being in breach of the parliament's position.

'Not everything I don't like is illegal'

However, later the same day, Viviane Reding, the EU's information society commissioner, categorically ruled out such a move.

"The commission may only start infringement proceedings if there is a violation of European Community law," she told reporters in Brussels at a press conference following a meeting of European culture ministers.

Ms Reding has backed the parliament's perspective on internet cut-off since Strasbourg first mooted the idea of requiring a court order, but nevertheless believes the amendment and the French law to be compatible.

"I have no indications about violations of European Community law; and I see nothing legally in the amendment ... that would change this situation," she added.

She insisted however that she continues to back the parliament's perspective and does not support the French legislation, but that there is nothing she can do.

"This is a sovereign decision of the French assembly on a French law."

"Not everything that I do not like politically is also illegal."

Information society spokesperson Martin Selmyr told EUobserver that the European Parliament's amendment only requires that national telecoms regulators not be permitted to cut off internet access without a court order.

"Is the Hadopi agency likely to become responsible for telecoms regulation as well? I don't think so," he said.

He pointed out that an earlier amendment had referred to the Hadopi agency instead of national regulators. "Had that passed, then it could have been argued that the French bill fell under that."

"Instead, the resulting amendment is legally impotent."

He added that in any case, the legislative process for the EU telecoms package is far from over and until it is completed, France cannot be said to be in breach of European law.

Differences between the parliament and the Council of Ministers - representing the member states - over the piracy amendment has meant that the full package is unlikely to be adopted before February 2010.

Commission bows before Council - Bono

Mr Bono reacted furiously, accusing the commission of its own impotence in the face of the Council of Ministers.

"It is precisely this type of bureaucratic attitude that harms the image of Europe. Ms Reding's remarks only diminish the image of the European Commission, characterised by its democratic deficit and its lack of independence with respect to the Council."

He went on to suggest that the desire of the commission's president, Jose Manuel Barroso, for a second term and the consequent impulse to not antagonise the French leader was responsible for the executive's "about-face" on the subject.

"We all know here in Brussels how Barroso goes out of his way to spare Sarkozy and France in order to win his re-appointment," he said.

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