ISPs can’t be forced to filter file-sharing traffic, says EU court

European ISPs will not be required to filter electronic communications which use file-sharing software in order to prevent file sharing which infringes copyright, the European Court of Justice decided today.

This decision marks the end of a case that was opened back in 2004, when the Belgian society of authors, composers and editors (SABAM) asked the Brussels Court of First Instance to force Belgian ISP Scarlet to filter its networks to prevent P2P sharers from illegally acquiring copyrighted materials, ZDNet reports.

Scarlet, who was acquired by Belgacom in 2008, decided to continue the fight and took the case to the Brussels Court of Appeal, which asked the European Court of Justice to weigh in on the matter.

And, according to it, “the protection of the fundamental right to property, which includes the rights linked to intellectual property, must be balanced against the protection of other fundamental rights.”

The rights it speaks of are that of Internet users (“the right to protection of their personal data and their freedom to receive or impart information”) and of the ISPs (“the freedom of the ISP concerned to conduct its business since it would require that ISP to install a complicated, costly, permanent computer system at its own expense”).

“It is common ground, first, that the injunction requiring installation of the contested filtering system would involve a systematic analysis of all content and the collection and identification of users’ IP addresses from which unlawful content on the network is sent. Those addresses are protected personal data because they allow those users to be precisely identified,” pointed out the court. “Secondly, that injunction could potentially undermine freedom of information since that system might not distinguish adequately between unlawful content and lawful content, with the result that its introduction could lead to the blocking of lawful communications.”

But, the court’s decision does not make it illegal for content providers to request ISPs to block specific sites, so the verdict doesn’t clash with the one handed down by the High Court in England in July, when it decided that British Telecom must block users from accessing the Newzbin 2 website, an aggregator of links to pirated movies and other content.

Still, it has made many privacy advocates happy.

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