Secretive international trade negotiations intended to clamp down on counterfeiting risk undermining the openness and innovation-friendly nature of the Internet, said EuroISPA, a trade group representing Europe's Internet service providers (ISPs), on Monday.
If the ideas under discussion are adopted, ISPs may be forced to snoop on their subscribers and cut them off if they are found to have shared copyright-protected music on the Net.
Countries including the U.S., Japan, Canada, South Korea and Australia, and the European Union trading block, have been negotiating an anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA) over the past two years to combat the growing problem of counterfeiting of products ranging from designer clothes to downloadable music.
Trade officials from each of the participating countries met behind closed doors in Seoul earlier this month to discuss the most contentious element of the proposed trade agreement: how to deal with copyright infringement on the Internet.
The U.S. is leading the discussions on the matter. It has proposed that signatories of the trade agreement should "provide for third-party liability" for ISPs when their subscribers illegal share files, such as music or video, over their networks.
Under existing laws in the U.S., the E.U. and elsewhere, ISPs are granted immunity from prosecution for illegal activities carried out by subscribers across their networks.
The trade agreement would hand copyright owners a powerful weapon with which to beat ISPs, but ISPs question whether it would actually help combat illegal filesharing.
"Such heavy-handed measures would create a serious danger of undermining and restricting the open innovative space that lies at the very heart of the Internet's success," said Malcolm Hutty, EuroISPA's president, in a statement.
"This agreement would have a negative impact on Internet users without having an appreciable impact on fighting illicit use of copyrighted material," he added.
EuroISPA is concerned that the attempt to implement such measures through a trade agreement, rather than a conventional legislative process, will not allow the various stakeholders, such as ISPs and European citizens' representatives, to enter the debate.
According to an internal memo written by European trade officials at the European Commission earlier this year, the U.S. wants ACTA to force ISPs to put in place policies to deter unauthorized storage and transmission of infringing content, such as clauses in customers' contracts threatening the subscriber with being cut off if they are caught illegally sharing files over the Internet.
The U.S. used the term "graduated response," the same term being used in the U.K. and France to describe similar measures they are taking at a national level to clamp down on copyright abuse.
A recently passed French law otherwise known as the "three strikes" law means that people accused of illegally sharing copyright materials will receive warnings on the first two occasions, before having their Internet access suspended for a period.
The UK is considering introducing a similar law.
Meanwhile, at the European level, the European Parliament failed in its attempts to outlaw what many MEPs consider these draconian efforts to clamp down on filesharers.
The Parliament delayed the passing of a wide-ranging set of new laws for the telecommunications industry by insisting that any decision to ban someone from the Internet should be taken by a judge, and not by a government-appointed official.
In the end the Parliament gave up the fight under pressure, particularly from France and the U.K. Last week the telecommunications laws were passed with a clause calling for safeguards to citizens' rights to defense, but with no reference to the involvement of a judge in any decision to bar someone from the Net.