A couple of weeks ago I posted about my pro bono project for the Open Rights Group, analysing proposed changes to EU Telecoms law that might allow a 'Three Strikes' sanction against alleged file-sharers without recourse to due process of law. As became clear in preparing our final report, a key measure was Amendment 138, inserted by the EU Parliament in an effort to apply the rule of law to such measures. The EU Council is voting tomorrow on the Telecoms Package, but confusion has now arisen about whether Amendment 138 is still in play. What seems to have happened is that there has (in true EU style) been a lot of horse-trading going on as to the final text of the Telecoms Package that the EU Council is going to vote on tomorrow.
It's worth remembering that EU legislation is made in a complex and not very transparent way and that voting by MEPs in the EU Parliament is only part of the process. The final vote at the EU Council is by representatives of member state governments, all of which have their own agendas. Furthermore, it's not as if individual elements such as Amendment 138 get voted on line-by-line; instead, the final text (including amendments made by the EU Parliament) is argued over behind closed doors before a compromise is voted on by the Council. If you think this bears more resemblance to trying to pass a rule change through your local football club committee than getting a Bill through Parliament, you might not be wrong.
Looking at the final versions of the five amended EU Directives that form the Telecoms Package, it seems that yes, Amendment 138 (which made sanctions against 'unlawful content' subject to due process of law) has indeed disappeared. But so have some elements of another part of the Package that said that national telecoms regulators should regulate lawful and unlawful content. What was particularly worrying about those provisions was that they referred to another part of the Package that mandated co-operation between national regulators and telecoms industry providers - i.e. ISPs and the big telecoms carriers.
So, what we were looking at until now was a set of provisions buried within the Telecoms Package that said:
a) National regulators must promote lawful content.
b) National regulators must co-operate with ISPs.
c) Measures to do this must be by due process of law. (Amendment 138)
In the latest version, (c) is gone - but so is (a), leaving (b) more as a general mandate that regulators and the telecoms industry must work together, but not with a set 'stop unlawful content' agenda. In fact, the end result of the latest round of changes is to put much of the underlying legislation back to its current state, as first passed in 2002.
So does the Telecoms Package say anything at all now about due process? Actually, yes. At this point it should be noted that EU Directives work not by making law directly (well, not generally, but for EU law experts I am simplifying here) but instead by giving a template that each member state must then turn into national law. It does this by means of Articles, which must be turned straight into local law, and Recitals, which are more like explanatory notes of what the new law is meant to do. In theory a Directive should contain a list of Recitals explaining what the Directive is trying to do, followed by a set of Articles that lay down the laws to be made that will do it.
Here though, the relevant Articles have been amended or deleted so there is no specific one saying 'make a law guaranteeing due process for telecoms disconnection'. But the related Recital, inserted by the EU Parliament, is still there:
"In the absence of relevant rules of Community law, content, applications and services are deemed lawful or harmful in accordance with national substantive and procedural law. It is a task for the relevant authorities of the Member States, not for providers of electronic communications networks or services, to decide, in accordance with due process, whether content, applications or services are lawful or harmful or not."
In other words, EU member states, when implementing the Telecoms Package, are strongly guided to do so in a way that relies on the rule of law and due process rather than delegating the whole thing to ISPs.
Where are we left after all this? If the current Telecoms Package passes on Thursday, it will have the desired safeguards removed, but it will also be rather watered-down. Instead of clearly laying down a Three Strikes policy, it now gives guidance to say that such measures must be subject to due process. Now this won't on the face of it stop a particular country from passing its own Three Strikes law if it wants to, although it will give a heavy hint that any such law must allow for due process. My own opinion is that the Three Strikes battle hasn't been won or lost this week - instead it's been moved to each EU member state to be fought locally.
But what this whole mess does highlight is the very opaque and convoluted process by which EU law is made. The EU is often described as suffering from a 'Democratic Deficit', with law-making processes that, as I noted above, more resemble those of a club than a nation. Given that the EU started out as a club, albeit of countries, that is not surprising - but if it is now acting like a super-state setting telecoms laws governing the net access of half a billion people, is this really a good way to carry on?
Finally, I'd like to thank Monica Horten at IPtegrity.com for essential and insightful analysis of the latest changes.
Posts on this blog represent my opinion. It may be my considered opinion on the basis of my formal study of law and technology. But it is not legal advice. It must not be treated as, or acted upon as, legal advice and no liability is accepted for doing so.