EU Parliament approves law ensuring Internet access as a fundamental right

For years, the European Commission has been planning a comprehensive package of telecommunications reform, with the aim of creating a "bill of rights" spelling out what individual European citizens should have a right to do online, and what kind of business environment they should expect. For instance, consumers should have the right to change their carriers while keeping their old phone numbers, reads paragraph 1 of the Telecoms Reform bill; and in paragraph 3, when a member state imposes a measure that a telecom business believes threatens free competition, it may raise the issue before a higher, continental authority that may trump national lawmakers.

But it's paragraph 10 that's been the cause of considerable debate. After the EC submitted the reform bill to the European Parliament (the lower house of the EU's legislative branch) it amended that paragraph with stronger language about the rights of a European citizen to Internet access -- language that attempts to quite literally equate the right of access to the right of free speech.
Last November, the text of that amendment looked like this: "No restriction may be imposed on the fundamental rights and freedoms of end-users, without a prior ruling by the judicial authorities, notably in accordance with Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on freedom of expression and information, save when public security is threatened where the ruling may be subsequent."

That language met with opposition from Parliament members who supported French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose "three strikes" bill against alleged IP pirates was re-introduced in his country's parliament last week, after suffering a defeat there just one week earlier.

At the same time Pres. Sarkozy's bill was being resurrected, EU Parliament members came to agreement on compromise language about access assurance. At issue there was how best to phrase the part about "the judicial authorities" -- essentially, how to determine who gets to take that fundamental right away, and for what reasons. According to press reports, part of the debate revolved around whether a hardening of the language should be tucked in paragraph 10 itself, or perhaps in the preamble -- in an area of the bill that could be treated like the "small print" accompanying a pharmaceutical company's promise of instant relief.

"The rules therefore provide that any measures taken regarding access to or use of services and applications through electronic communications networks must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, including in relation to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information and education, as well as due process," reads a dispatch from the EC this morning. "The new rules also clarify that the final word on this important matter of Internet access must be with a judicial authority."

But even with the support of both houses of the EU legislature, the bill cannot become law without the approval of the Council of Telecoms Ministers, which represent the collective regulatory power of the member states with respect to telecommunications. The Council has already voiced its opinion on telecoms matters in recent months; last month, for instance, it suggested watering down the part about the creation of an oversight authority with the power to nullify measures such as Sarkozy's, replacing it instead with a kind of grievance forum with only the power to render "opinions." The Council has appeared worried that the bill's reference to "a judicial authority" leaves open the door for bestowing arbitration power in personal rights matters to a tribunal, making it a kind of appeals court for individual citizens who may feel infringed upon by Sarkozy and leaders of other member states.

In her trademark style, European Commissioner for the Information Society and Media Viviane Reding effectively laid down the law for the Telecoms Ministers, saying that a vote against telecoms reform for this reason could be construed by their respective constituents as no less than a vote against fundamental human rights.

"Now the ball is in the court of the Council of Telecoms Ministers to decide whether or not to accept this package of reforms," stated Comm. Reding this morning. "This amendment is an important restatement of the fundamental rights of EU citizens. For many, it is of very high symbolic and political value. I call on the Council of Ministers to assess the situation very carefully, also in the light of the importance of the telecoms reform for the sector and for the recovery of our European economy. The Telecoms Council on 12 June should be used for a political discussion on whether agreement on the package is still possible or whether the discussion will have to start again with the new European Parliament in autumn."

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