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EU passes tough new antipiracy law

Civil liberties groups say efforts to shield individuals from commercial pirates' penalties aren't strong enough.

The European Parliament passed controversial legislation Tuesday aimed at cracking down on copyright pirates, ranging from DVD counterfeiters to illicit Viagra sellers online.

Aimed largely at large-scale commercial counterfeiting operations, the bill had prompted a surge of last-minute protest from civil liberties groups worried that draconian provisions could be applied to ordinary Net surfers, such as individual music swappers.

The last-minute lobbying did have some impact--but how much remains to be seen. The legislative body said it added an amendment that focuses the proposed regulations on commercial pirates.

"The House voted for an amendment stipulating that main enforcement measures need to be applied only for breaches committed on a commercial scale," according to a statement on the parliament's Web site. "Simply put, this means that consumers acting in good faith will be excluded from the (new regulations)--for example, individuals copying music recordings for their own use would not normally be penalized."

That's not enough to assuage the worries of all civil liberties groups, however. The wording still leaves room for individuals to be targeted, they said.

"Traditional civil liberties, fairness, balance and proportionality have all been thrown to the wind in the overzealous rush to pass this dangerous directive," said Robin Gross, executive director of IP Justice, a civil liberties group that has closely tracked the legislation's passage.

The new directive is aimed at bringing copyright and intellectual property enforcement laws into line across the European Union, a task viewed as particularly important with the impending expansion of the European Union to 25 countries.

Organizations such as the Business Software Alliance and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) had lobbied for the addition of criminal penalties to the legislation, but were rebuffed. A coalition of intellectual property groups said it will continue to push for EU-wide criminal penalties for copyright infringement.

"Creative industries will continue to press for criminal sanctions at the EU level and call on the institutions to address this issue urgently," a statement released by the coalition read. "Pirates often use relatively easy profits from piracy to fund other criminal activity such as arms trafficking and drug dealing."

The bill did include stiff civil penalties, such as the power to freeze product counterfeiters' assets after a court verdict, as well as stronger enforcement measures that would allow subpoenas of Internet service providers' records.

The legislation is expected to be approved by EU ministers within the next two weeks. The European Union's member states then would have two years to adopt the provisions as national law.