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.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Telecoms Package: What Now and Where Next?

Following on from my previous post about the EU Telecoms Package, the vote in question took place this morning. Monica Horten, who is far more au fait with the minutiae of EU legislative procedure than I am, has given a very good write-up of what happened.

So, this isn't the end of the process. We now have the Council's view of what the Telecoms Package should be, as well as the Commission's view and the EU Parliament's view. All three bodies will now have to try to hammer out a compromise, and it's clear from Monica's report that there is much unease at the Council (i.e. national) as well as Parliament (direct representatives) level as to the way in which both Amendment 138 and its sibling Amendment 166 - which was dropped by the Council some time back - have been expunged. As I noted earlier, Recital 14a remains in the Universal Service Directive to urge proper due process via national legal systems, so with any luck questions will be asked as to why, if the Council is content to leave it in, there isn't some accompanying Article to ensure compliance with it?

As I see it, there are definitely further opportunities for lobbying and action. The Telecoms Package will have to finish its passage through the EU legislative process - Monica suggests this will probably be over the next few months - and the resulting amended Directives will have to be transposed into UK law over the subsequent two or three years. Our MEPs, MPs and Ministers are not off the hook yet.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Whatever Happened to Amendment 138?

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 for essential and insightful analysis of the latest changes.

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Onward March of Technology...

... applies even to misconduct in the jury room. Ouija boards (as in R v Young (Stephen) [1995] QB 324) are clearly old hat, as the lazy or delinquent juror now has recourse to Facebook.

Leaving aside the fact that this person now faces the prospect of being charged with Contempt of Court, this once again highlights the way in which Facebook is so often used without any regard to the privacy settings available. My friend Pangloss has many a time lamented the way in which students in particular post all manner of personal details to social networking sites without considering who might see them - either now, or down the road when they're looking for jobs, and prospective employers are liable to make use of Google.

But what happens if and when we have security-conscious web users and genuinely anonymous net access? The current laws on jury process evolved when the only opportunity a juror had to seek outside advice was to go down the pub. How well will they work when user randomjuror53234 posts a query on an anonymised discussion board?

Monday, 17 November 2008

Caught in the Middle

via The Register - which runs the story under the by-line 'Magazine faces legal action for bowing to legal action' - news of how The New Statesman is being threatened with a libel suit via whistle-blowing site Wikileaks for removing, under legal threat, a link to a WikiLeaks article.

This sounds a rather odd course of action to me. For starters, removing a link to a story is a long way short of saying, or even clearly implying, that it is inaccurate. Furthermore, The New Statesman was presumably acting under legal advice and quite possibly in response to an interim injunction, in which case it would have been anything from inadvisable to illegal for it not to take down the link.

If Wikileaks does file a claim, I can see another court hearing coming up - an application for summary judgment and/or striking out.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Opening Up the Telecoms Package for the Open Rights Group

My posting record has continued to be a bit thin of late thanks to the pressures of the Bar Vocational Course. (And if you're reading this in the UK, BBC 2's new series 'The Barristers' starts tonight, featuring the joys of the BVC). However, part of my work of late has been a pro bono project that came my way from the Open Rights Group, via Prof Lilian Edwards (aka Pangloss).

Detailed accounts of the background are given by ORG here and Prof Edwards here, but in a nutshell I was asked to review the latest batch of amendments to the core group of Directives governing EU telecoms law. In particular, my remit was to see what had happened to measures inserted by MEPs to ensure that disconnection sanctions - the so-called 'Three Strikes' measures - could only be implemented via due process of law. I was very helpfully assisted by Monica Horten of, whilst Judith Rauhofer at UCLAN provided useful advice and of course Prof Edwards oversaw the whole effort; I'm especially grateful to her for comments on the text as it developed and for putting together a very clear and forceful summary for our final report.

Our findings? Yes, there are elements of the Telecoms Package as it stands that raise serious concerns. In particular, some of the measures explicitly inserted by MEPs to ensure due process have disappeared, although it does seem that there are efforts being made to keep at least one in place. Also, some of the definitions of the sort of content or threat that would give grounds for communications providers to read traffic (with associated privacy concerns) are potentially very broad.

I feel I should make my own position clear. As an aspiring IP lawyer I think that copyright protection is a good thing - so long as it is properly regulated, clear in scope and applied under the aegis of the courts. To take an analogy with land law, the law of 'real' property, we regulate land ownership under a system that protects land-owners whilst at the same time recognising rights-of-way, providing for boundary disputes and setting legal constraints on how we deal with land-owners. I don't agree with those who scoff at the whole idea of IP, any more than I'd go along with ideas to allow anyone to do what they wanted on anyone else's land. But equally, nor would I support a proposal to allow large land-owners to take over all responsibility for controlling access to their estates, including the power to decide for themselves if a right-of-way or easement existed and to eject with extreme force anyone they considered might be trespassing. The proposed measures could well lead to providers flagging legitimate peer-to-peer filesharing or fair-dealing use of copyright material as being illicit, whilst denying those affected recourse to the courts to prove their legal rights.

From here on, it's over to the ORG to take this matter forward, and I return to the more mainstream BVC joys of the Civil Procedure Rules, sentencing policy and drafting Particulars of Claim. Oh, and with any luck maybe even posting some IP and technology law stories here - there have certainly been plenty of interest lately. But this has been a fascinating project to be involved with, as well as providing an at times alarming insight into the process by which EU law is made.