EU court backs telecoms on user identities

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BRUSSELS -- Europe's telecoms and Internet companies are not obliged to reveal the identity of customers who illegally download movies and music over the Internet, the European Court of Justice ruled today.

The ruling is a blow to film studios and music labels who have urged EU authorities to clamp down hard on peer-to-peer file exchange users by forcing telecom giants and ISPs to intervene. However, the EU court said that privacy protection also applies to Internet pirates.

The case was referred by judges in Spain, who had turned to the Luxembourg-based court for guidance on applying EU law when dealing with a case pitting Promusicae, the main association of Spanish musicians, against Internet provider Telefonica.

Promusicae had asked Telefonica to reveal the identities and physical addresses of customers suspected of using the popular peer-to-peer program KaZaA to download copyright-protected music for free. But Telefonica had refused on the grounds that, under Spanish law, such a disclosure was authorized only in a criminal investigation or to safeguard public security and national defense.

The EU court ruling said that EU member states could enact provisions obliging the disclosure of personal data in civil proceedings. "However, it does not compel the member states to lay down such an obligation," the court said in a statement.

The court said that EU rules protecting people's privacy should also apply to non-criminal cases involving copyright violations. "Community law does not require the member states, in order to ensure the effective protection of copyright, to lay down an obligation to disclose personal data in the context of civil proceedings," the court said.

The ruling said that EU countries need to strike "a fair balance" between protecting intellectual property and protecting personal data. However, the judges were ready to side more with personal privacy concerns than copyright complaints.

"There are several community directives whose purpose is that the member states should ensure, especially in the information society, effective protection of industrial property, in particular copyright," the court said. "Such protection cannot, however, affect the requirements of the protection of personal data. The directives on the protection of personal data also allow the member states to provide for exceptions to the obligation to guarantee the confidentiality of traffic data."

As a final note, the court said that the fact it was being asked to rule on this issue, "raises the question of the need to reconcile the requirements of the protection of different fundamental rights, namely the right to respect for private life on the one hand and the rights to protection of property and to an effective remedy on the other."

The ruling was welcomed by the music industry, which interpreted the decision as ensuring that copyright holders, "can obtain the information they need to enforce their rights and obtain effective remedies."

IFPI, which represents the major music labels, said the court recognized that it would not have been the intention of European lawmakers to allow EU privacy legislation to block effective protection of property rights.

"Copyright theft on the Internet is the single biggest obstacle to the growth of the music business today," IFPI chairman and CEO John Kennedy said. "The European Court has confirmed the need to have effective tools to tackle piracy. The judgment means that music rights owners can still take civil actions to enforce their rights, and it has sent out a clear signal that member states have to get the right balance between privacy and enforcement of intellectual property rights and that intellectual property rights can neither be ignored nor neglected."

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