European Union weighs in against SOPA and PIPA

As support for the controversial anti-piracy legislation unraveled among U.S. Senators ahead of the crucial vote on the Protect International Property Act (PIPA), the European Union’s Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, came with uncharacteristically strong statements criticizing the proposed measures. The EU is normally wary of openly criticizing pending U.S. legislation for fear of being accused of meddling for self-interest in the affairs of a major trading partner. But, in this case, it seems to have been liberated by the strength of opposition within the U.S. Kroes described SOPA, currently being awaiting debate and decision by the House of Representatives, as bad legislation, tweeting, “speeding is illegal too: but you don't put speed bumps on the motorway.” Her argument was that online piracy needs tackling, but the measures should be proportionate and avoid damaging the Internet’s huge societal benefit as a global medium for free speech. The EU is also working on legislation to deal with online piracy, but with the big difference that it will not attempt to interfere with the fundamental mechanisms of the Internet itself to cut off websites suspected of piracy. This position is set out in a statement made by the European Parliament, the EU’s directly elected legislative institution, stressing “the need to protect the integrity of the global internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.”

The EU objects to the element of extra territoriality implicit in SOPA and PIPA, conferring power to block access from within the U.S. to sites suspected by some U.S. institutions, such as a Hollywood Studio, of being guilty of piracy of its content. The argument here is over the burden of proof, the actions that may be taken, and over who is responsibility for content. These bills, if passed, could enable access from the U.S. to external websites to be blocked even if they have unwittingly allowed just one user to post some offending content.

To a large extent, SOPA and PIPA are focused on foreign-hosted sites in order to overcome the inability of the U.S. to act directly against them. This leads to a fundamental conflict for sites and online services hosted in the EU, since its legislation prohibits monitoring and filtering of communication online on the grounds that it breaches fundamental rights such as privacy, freedom of communication and freedom of information. It states this still applies in the case of infringements of IPR (Intellectual Property Rights). Yet, such failure to monitor the sites leaves them open to action from the U.S.

Given this position, the EU has been increasingly at odds with the U.S. over online piracy, but now hopes that the strength of the campaign against SOPA and PIPA, highlighted and publicized outside by the U.S. by the 24-hour English Wikipedia blackout, will help the two trading blocks reach a common position reconciling online freedom with anti-copyright measures.