EU court rules sites can’t be forced to check for piracy

European Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg has issued a ruling (English PDF) that Web sites cannot be forced to install general filters on their systems intended to block the piracy of music, video, and other content, finding such filters do no sufficiently protect users’ freedom to send and receive information, nor protect user data. The decision is being heralded as a victory for consumer rights advocates, but a setback for industry groups and governments looking to crack down on digital piracy.

“Adopting an injunction requiring the hosting service provider to install such a filtering system, the national court would not be respecting the requirement that a fair balance be struck between the right to intellectual property, on the one hand, and the freedom to conduct business, the right to protection of personal data and the freedom to receive or impart information, on the other,” the court wrote in its decision.

The case dates to 2009, when Belgian music royalty firm SABAM sued social networking service Netlog, demanding that the service be ordered to block distribution of copyrighted music and video and pay a penalty of €1000 per day that it failed to comply. Netlog responded that being required to monitor its services for piracy would be equivalent to a government requirement to monitor all communications on its service, which is prohibited by the EU’s ECommerce Directive.

The decision doesn’t prohibit rights holders from seeking more-limited injunctions against social networking services or individuals for engaging in digital piracy.

The ruling comes amidst a heated debate in Europe over anti-piracy measures included in ACTA, the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that would span not just Europe, but include the United States and Japan as well, instituting criminal and civil penalties for copyright infringement across signatory countries. Yesterday, the Dutch and Bulgarian governments indicated they would refuse to ratify the agreement.

The EU Court of Justice’s ruling is the second judgement the court has made regarding SABAM; in November, the court backed an ISP over similar traffic-monitoring demands.