Internet providers are the new secret police, says report

A study claims that EU states are pushing ISPs to police customer activity

More and more European Union member states are delegating online policing to private companies and Internet service providers, according to a report released Wednesday.

Where law enforcement agencies would traditionally have tackled the problem of illegal online content, more powers are being given to ISPs in the name of industry self-regulation, according to a study by the organization European Digital Rights (EDRI). That trend is likely to become stronger with increasing "extra-judicial sanctions" against consumers, EDRI said.

Proposed legislation and "non-binding guidelines" have left intermediaries in a precarious position, unsure whether they are liable for the actions of consumers over their networks. So-called "three strikes" laws, under which alleged copyright infringers receive three warnings before their Internet connection is cut off, put the onus on Internet service providers to police customers. Such laws currently appear in some form in French, Irish and U.K. legislation, where they have met with anger from ISPs. In France, the law can impose a fine and a one-year Internet connection suspension. The U.K.'s Digital Economy Act, adopted last year, provoked concern from the country's two largest ISPs, BT and TalkTalk.

International trade agreements such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), and bilateral trade agreements the E.U. has signed with India and South Korea, all leave the door open for intermediary liability.

"The European Commission appears far from perturbed by the dangers for fundamental rights of this approach and appears keen to export the approach. This process is gradually strangling the openness that is at the core of the Internet. This openness has enhanced democracy, has shaken dictatorships and has boosted economies worldwide. This openness is what we will lose through privatized policing of the Internet by private companies," said Joe McNamee, Advocacy Coordinator at European Digital Rights.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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Jennifer Baker

IDG News Service
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