The battle between internet pirates and copyright holders shifted to Strasbourg this week, with a move that threatens to hold up a major European Union telecoms bill and unravel France's flagship legislation on cutting off internet access for illegal downloaders.
MEPs in the European Parliament's industry committee on Tuesday (21 April) passed an amendment to the telecoms bill requiring that internet cut-offs can only be put in place after a decision by judicial authorities.
The bill itself is a much broader legislative initiative that aims to substantially reform the European telecoms sector, focusing on infrastructure rather than content, with both parliament and EU member states largely in agreement on the package.
But last September, MEPs overwhelmingly backed a similar amendment that intended to put a stop to France's "three strikes law," under which copyright scofflaws would see their internet stopped for up to a year.
The euro-deputies were convinced that the French approach was a draconian method of dealing with the problem.
In negotiations on the telecoms bill Tuesday between the parliament and member states, diplomats first agreed an internet cut-off can only be imposed after approval from "a competent legal authority." But they wanted to put the language in the "recital," or legislative preamble, which does not form part of the legal text itself.
In the evening, the industry committee voted by 40 to four in favour of placing the amendment within the law proper.
The battle between euro-deputies and member states, which will delay passage of the overall telecoms bill for at least a month, highlights the growing importance of internet piracy as a political issue, particularly in France and Sweden.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has personally championed the three-strikes legislation in the face of fierce resistance from the opposition French Socialists. His diplomats have mounted a considerable lobbying offensive in Brussels to try to stop the European Parliament from including its amendment, as it would halt his own legislation in its tracks.
On the other side of the barricades, internet freedom advocates have also campaigned heavily in the European capital, particularly in the last few days in the wake of a court decision in Sweden that sentenced four young men to a year in jail for internet piracy.
The verdict has infuriated young Swedish voters. According to La Quadrature du Net, a French internet civil liberties pressure group backed by the Open Society Institute and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it galvanised hundreds of their supporters to bombard MEPs with emails encouraging them to stand firm on the telecoms bill amendment.
In Sweden, the court sentence has, perhaps temporarily, pushed the Pirate Party, a political party that campaigns on similar issues, to be the number one choice of young voters, with almost 50 percent of young men under 30 saying they intend to cast their ballot for them in the June 2009 elections to the European Parliament.
Jeremie Zimmermann, of La Quadrature du Net hailed the MEPs' move: "The European citizens will remember this courageous stand. Members of the European Parliament honoured their mandates by standing courageously for citizens' rights and freedoms."
It is a salute the deputies will welcome. Ahead of the June elections, the MEPs can smell a hot-button issue, and with turn-out expected to reach record lows, particularly amongst the young, they are keen to prove they are on the popular side.
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