Europe tries to fence off cyberspace

Skype customers, internet users and internet service providers could lose their right to communicate and wander freely on the Internet

Skype customers, internet users and internet service providers could lose their right to communicate and wander freely on the internet if the European Parliament passes amendments to the Telecoms Package being negotiated between the European Commission, parliament and member states.

The vote, which will follow the second reading plenary in Strasbourg on Wednesday 6 May, could give network operators the right to "shape traffic", in effect strangling traffic between peer to peer networks and so drive Skype, which depends on P2P file sharing, out of business.

Last month Skype was named as the world's biggest cross-border voice carrier by Telegeography. It has 405 million users who last year spent 384 billion minutes talking to each other.

Netwatchers have described the amendments as selling out European citizens. In a statement, EuroISPA said, "Not only are the latest proposals disproportionate and ill-advised, they also risk undermining the comprehensive and collaborative approach to dealing with the privacy issues envisaged by the institutions."

"Both rapporteurs of the main directives of the Telecoms Package, Malcolm Harbour (IMCO report) and Catherine Trautmann (ITRE report) sacrificed the effective protection of citizens' fundamental rights," said La Quadrature du Net, a website that is supported by French, European and international NGOs including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Open Society Institute and Privacy International.

Monica Horten, who runs the IPtegrity website, said the Package again opens the door to three-strikes measures, the "graduated response" that would see ISPs warning persistent file sharers to stop.

Malcolm Hutty, speaking for EuroISPA, the European association of ISPs, said he hoped France would drop its "aggressive" insistence on the three strikes issue, which is being strongly promoted by the music and film industries.

"The right approach is to develop new business models that would delight their customers by providing the products through the right channels at the right price at the right time," he said.

Hutty's comments relate to secret government negotiations to introduce a global anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA), that would ban copying and trade in copyright goods. "It is very disappointing that privileged access should be given to ACTA negotiations, whereas the network industry, which is a large stakeholder in this issue, has been totally excluded," he said.

Hutty said traffic shaping to give most users the best possible quality of service was a legitimate right for ISPs.

Horten said earlier proposals related to users rights could be either rejected or amended to remove rights, and ISPs will not get reimbursed for sending warning messages to three-strikers.

Horten, a Westminster University PhD candidate who is researching the political battle for control of online content in the European Union, said an amendment to give users a guaranteed right to a connection was rejected. This would appear to go against separate moves to oblige network operators to provide broadband services.

Another, to safeguard users rights, would be subject to three-way negotiations between the Commission, Parliament and member states. Texts already circulating would deprive users of rights, she said.

The key text will give broadband providers the right to limit users access to services and applications. Horten said Article 20.1 (b) and Article 21.3 compromise amendment CA5 of the Universal Services directive.

Other amendments which sought to protect users rights by strengthening the regulators' powers, were rejected earlier.

"A logical assumption is that peer-to-peer applications will be targeted, as well as voice-over-IP (VoIP). Skype already says that it is being blocked by some operators in Europe, so this would not be an exaggerated interpretation," she said.

Hutty said he was unaware that Skype was being blocked by any ISP.

It is understood some information technology companies, including software houses, have been party to the discussions, but sworn to secrecy.

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