EU agrees on new internet user rights

EU lawmakers and governments have agreed on proposed new telecommunication rules that better protect European mobile phone and internet users from arbitrary service cutoffs.

EU lawmakers and governments agreed Thursday on proposed new telecommunication rules that better protect European mobile phone and internet users from arbitrary service cutoffs.

EU telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding said a deal was reached after EU governments agreed to EU Parliament demands to balance a crackdown on illegal downloaders with a broader set of rights for telecom users. The reforms were two years in the making.

EU lawmakers had been at odds with governments, notably France, over how to tackle the increase of illegal downloading amid heavy lobbying from music and film industry groups urging the 27-nation bloc to take action.

Film and record labels were demanding better enforcement of copyright rules to protect profits that are shrinking in the face of online file-sharing, in which people swap music files without paying.

However, in a victory for the EU assembly, governments relented and agreed to include guarantees in the bill protecting users from arbitrary cutoffs of their internet services.

The bill still needs the final approval of the European Parliament and EU governments, which is expected later this month.

Under the guarantee, national authorities will only be able to cut off such services if they have proof that a user was downloading illegal copies of movies or music files, ensuring users are presumed innocent.

"Full due process rights will have to apply in any administrative case, except in cases of duly justified urgency, like serious crime, terrorism, child pornography," said Spanish lawmaker Alejo Vidal-Quadras. "This is really a step forward."

'Unprecedented' provision

"This internet freedom provision is unprecedented … and (gives) a strong signal that the EU takes fundamental rights very seriously," Reding told reporters. "(It will) substantially enhance consumer rights and consumer choice in Europe's telecoms markets."

European consumers' organization BEUC warned, however, that the draft EU bill was too vague on "due process" rights given to users, complaining it does not specifically provide suspected illegal downloaders the right to a judicial hearing.

The draft bill also bolsters privacy and consumer rights and increases competition for internet and phone services, but those key improvements were overshadowed by the fight over internet user rights.

The EU Parliament voted overwhelmingly in May to throw out an earlier compromise reached with EU governments that would have allowed national authorities to cut off internet access without providing evidence of illegal activity.

Under pressure from the music and film industries, France had pushed hard for tough measures against illegal downloaders.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had advocated a "three strikes and you're out" rule, under which internet use would be tracked and users caught downloading would be warned twice before their internet access would be cut off for a year.

However, that approach was ditched after the French parliament passed a law in September watering down that plan. Efforts to cut off internet access will be left to a judge.