EU telecoms reform bogged down in Internet spat

STRASBOURG, France, April 23 (Reuters) - Talks to unblock a programme of sweeping reforms of the European Union telecoms sector failed in the early hours of Thursday as France dug in its heels over how to tackle illegal downloads, diplomats said.

Diplomats who attended the meeting of EU lawmakers and states said France was continuing to insist there was no final agreement until its own parliament takes a key vote on a new ‘Hadopi’ copyright protection law on April 29.

This is just days before a second reading vote in the European Parliament.

“It is absurd. The fate of the ambitious new framework now hangs on a vote in France to restrict Internet freedoms which the French Parliament has already rejected once,” one diplomat said.

“So it now depends on (French) President Nicolas Sarkozy whether a new framework will be able to enter into force.”

There is agreement over the remaining parts of the reform package, authored by EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding.

The battle over copyright abuse has emerged as a final sticking point between EU states and the European Parliament, which have a joint say. The issue was not part of Reding’s reform, which covers infrastructure rather than content.

To help crack down on illegal downloading or sharing of copyright material, the two sides agree that an Internet service provider should be able to cut a subscriber’s access, but only if there is approval from “a competent legal authority”.

This would ensure that Internet users’ rights are taken seriously as many EU lawmakers worry the French Hadopi law, personally supported by President Sarkozy, would make it too easy to cut off Internet access.

EU member state ambassadors agreed to include a provision on reinforcing the need for a legal ruling before a subscriber is cut off but that it must only be in the “recital” of the reform, or guidelines preceding the body of the telecoms law.

This is the most that France can accept, since it does not want any interference in its proposed national law.

Parliament’s industry committee voted on Tuesday for the provision to be in the body of the law itself: a move that France cannot accept.

“There is no obligation to act and transpose a recital into national law in the same way as an article,” said Catherine Trautmann, a French socialist who is helping to steer the telecoms reform through the EU parliament.

The meeting on Wednesday night failed to square the difference between the two sides.

Without a resolution to the Internet spat, the measure could end up going to a third reading, a process known as conciliation where there is limited time for negotiations on a final deal before the whole legislation falls. (Editing by xxxx)