The European Union voted through the final text of the Telecoms Package reform today, after two years of debate on how the EU Telecoms Rules of 2002 should be reworked to make the European telecoms market more unified.
In recent months Europe has watched with interest as two areas of the package received particular attention by the elected European Parliament because of the potential detrimental effect on citizens' internet freedoms.
The first area concerned net neutrality. Broadband operators will be allowed to restrict access to services and applications at their discretion from next year, after the European Parliament voted through the controversial Harbour Report in May.
Citizens' rights groups have argued that the adoption of the Harbour Report will be the end of net neutrality, and lead to a 'sub internet'. They claim that the report was heavily influenced by US telecoms giants, including AT&T and Verizon.
However, Viviane Reding, the European Commission representative for Information Society and Media, claimed today that the Telecoms Package will actually strengthen net neutrality because national authorities will be able to set minimum quality levels.
Consumers must also be informed before they sign a contract about the nature of the service to which they are subscribing, including any traffic management techniques and their impact on service quality, she said.
The second area of the reforms that faced heavy debate concerned illegal downloaders. The Council and Parliament disagreed on the issue to such an extent that the whole telecoms package proposals entered the EU's conciliation procedure in September, a phase when the two bodies try to reach a compromise.
The Council adopted the argument that illegal downloaders should be cut off from the internet after multiple attempts to file-share, but the Parliament sided with the idea held by digital rights organisations that internet access is an important human right and should not be restricted.
Finally, in a compromise earlier this month, the Parliament decided that citizens' internet access can be restricted if necessary, but only after a "fair and impartial procedure including the user's right to be heard".
But the fact that the wording hints at a judicial process even though it does not explicitly request it, has already led to confusion.
The UK government, which is currently trying to pass legislation that may see downloaders cut off from the internet, has argued that the reform package does not include the need for a legal procedure, an argument that has caused anger among human rights organisations.
Meanwhile, the Open Rights Group and ISP TalkTalk believe that the government is unlikely to be interpreting the EU legislation correctly.
Reding added clarification to the EU position yesterday. "Effective and timely judicial review is as much guaranteed as a prior, fair and impartial procedure, the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy," she said.
And in what will certainly jeopardise Lord Mandelson's proposals, Reding further affirmed that "measures that would allow for the cutting off of internet access without a prior fair and impartial procedure in front of a judge is certain to run into conflict with European law ".
"Repression alone will certainly not solve the problem of internet piracy; it may in many ways even run counter to the rights and freedoms which are part of Europe's values since the French Revolution," she added.
The revised EU telecoms framework directive was adopted at the third and final reading of the package by 510 votes to 40, with 24 abstentions.
In addition to the two high-profile issues relating to internet access, the Telecoms Package has made a number of other significant changes to the digital industry.
All Member States will have to adapt their national legislation to comply with these safeguards by 24 May 2011.
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