European Telco Package Doesn’t Guarantee Legal Hearing For Web Disconnections

Europeans should only lose their internet connection after a “a prior, fair and impartial procedure”, according to new legislation passed in the EU parliament — but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed a court hearing. The Telecoms Package — a hotly dispute and long-running bill of communications law changes — was finally passed on Tuesday by 510 votes to 40, with 24 abstentions, on its third reading (release).

The accompanying release calls the bill’s guarantee of a “procedure” a victory for citizens: MEP and rapporteur Catherine Trautmann says it’s the “first time that a legal text refers to the use of internet as the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms.” But as French internet campaign group argues, in reality the bill “leaves the door open for restrictions of Internet connections without a prior judicial decision”.

Why? Because whereas previous drafts of the bill — through the bitterly fought over amendment 138 — guaranteed that no one would be disconnected without “prior ruling by the judicial authorities“, the bill as passed only promises “the right to effective and timely judicial review,” which is not nearly the same thing.

MEPs, led by French socialist Guy Bono, had fought for inclusion of the original amendment 138, but ultimately parliament realised it didn’t have the legal right to impose such a rule on the 27 EU member states.

The legislation makes the right noises about citizen freedom: it says countries can only restrict broadband access where it’s “appropriate, proportionate and necessary within a democratic society” to do so do under the European Convention on Human Rights, and calls for “due respect for the principle of the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy”. But these sound like guidelines not legal requirements, and unless MEPs hand down clearer and tougher rules, the EU’s piracy legislation will be worlds away from the no-nonsense disconnection policies of key nations like France, Sweden and the UK.

Read the full 108-page document (pdf) or see the EC’s summary — which also include details on how the package will encourage investment in high-speed broadband networks and the create a Europe-wide media regulator. But the wheels of bureaucracy run slow in Strasbourg: none of this will be implemented into member states’ domestic legislation until May 2011.