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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -3°C
Many ISPs worldwide - including Eircom - have been forced to block the Pirate Bay website, which is regularly used to share copyrighted materials like films and music.

European court makes it illegal for ISPs to block blanket file-sharing

In what is being hailed by internet providers as a landmark ruling, the European Court of Justice says ISPs cannot ‘filter’ content.

Updated, 16:02

THE EUROPEAN COURT of Justice has this morning ruled that it is illegal for countries to force internet providers to block illegal filesharing on a blanket basis at their own expense.

In what is already being described as a landmark ruling, the European Court of Justice found that EU law precludes governments or courts from requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to place blanket blocks on the sharing of copyrighted material.

The ruling related to a long-running dispute between a music copyright group in Belgium, SABAM, which in 2004 was granted an injunction requiring a local ISP, Scarlet, to make it impossible to share music in its repertoire.

The matter was appealed in Belgium who referred the matter to the European Court of Justice, who this morning found that the injunction – requiring the installation of expensive filtering mechanisms – unfairly infringed Scarlet’s freedom to conduct its business.

The Internet Service Providers’ Association of Ireland welcomed the ruling, which it said was particularly relevant in Ireland given how the government had planned measures to impose similar measures in Ireland.

Enterprise minister Richard Bruton had proposed a Statutory Instrument which was intended to bring Ireland in line with European directives on copyright and e-commerce, but which ISPAI said could allow for the mass blocking or filtering of internet traffic.

“The eventual introduction of a graduated response system [was] not inconceivable in these conditions. Today’s ruling will certainly set limits on this,” ISPAI said.

The association said that while it condemned the improper use of members’ networks, it had advocated the development of other systems which could exploit the internet to distribute music on a legal basis.

“If measures were to be imposed on our members, they should never interfere with their freedom to conduct legitimate business or force them to expend unreasonable costs,” ISPAI said, describing the ruling as a “landmark judgment for the digital age”.

The ruling does not necessarily mean that ISPs who currently block some filesharing measures – such as Eircom’s court-ordered block on The Pirate Bay – will restore access to those sites, however.

The ECJ ruled that the order was only illegal under EU law when it applied “indiscriminately to all its customers, as a preventive measure, exclusively at its expense, and for an unlimited period.”

It also said that copyright holders were still free to seek injunctions from ISPs in order to stop access to their material if it had been shared in an unauthorised way.

Dick Doyle of the Irish Recorded Music Association, whose action brought about the Eircom situation, said the case “reinforces what we’re doing”.

The IRMA action with Eircom resulted in a “graduated response” situation, while the European ruling had specifically said a filtering system – which required constant monitoring of the content being transmitted across networks – was against its directives.

“This certainly reinforces, and even strengthens, our work in this area,” Doyle said.

Last month the High Court in London laid down a similar precedent the Eircom example when it  ordered BT to block access to the Newzbin2 site, which facilitated the sharing of copyrighted movies.

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