A debate over the rights and responsibilities of Internet service providers is bridging the Atlantic this week: While the French government is backing down from its position that ISPs are responsible for the content that passes over their networks, a bill that would make ISPs liable in copyright infringement cases is splitting the U.S. Internet industry down the middle.
A coalition of French Internet providers decided to cut short its protest ban of newsgroups this morning after the French minister of telecommunications acceded to their position that "information carriers" cannot be held responsible for material passed over their networks. The minister made the decision Friday after the ISPs staged a strike that cut off newsgroup access to the approximately 300,000 Internet users in France.
The strike was sparked by the arrest last week of top executives Rafi Haladjian of FranceNet and Sebastien Socchard of World-Net. The two were briefly detained after being accused of allowing access to newsgroups devoted to child pornography. The arrests were part of a larger government sweep against child porn.
The Association of French Internet Professionals, which organized the strike, had originally called for an eight-day ban but ended the protest on the fifth day.
"The telecommunications minister having clearly indicated that in his opinion Internet service providers should not be held responsible for Internet content, this declaration would seem to be a good reason to end this symbolic action," the AFPI said in a statement Monday.
The two executives still face criminal charges, however, that could result in three years imprisonment and $100,000 in fines. The AFPI is also continuing to lobby for new legislation that would clarify the government's role in regulating French Internet content.
"In reopening the newsgroups, the members of AFPI remain very aware of the fact that a strict reading of the criminal code makes the entire Internet illegal in this country... It is thus urgently necessary that the public authorities move quickly to define a clear law regarding the rights and obligations of Internet service providers."
A group of content providers, including Microsoft, Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting, is meanwhile lobbying Congress to pass legislation that would hold telephone and Internet access providers liable for material on their networks violating copyright laws, Bloomberg Business News reported today. The companies contend that the loosely restricted Internet fosters thievery of copyrighted works.
But a group of access providers is taking the opposite stand and fighting the legislation, Bloomberg reported. The Ad Hoc Copyright Working Coalition, which includes MCI Communications, AT&T, Sprint, and the big three online service providers, argues that the proposed legislation would force access providers either to shut down various information services or to police their networks heavily.
The coalition agrees that there should be ways to clamp down on the illegal online distribution of copyrighted material but proposes that access providers that do not generate, store, and alter content or provide browser software should not be held responsible for the material they distribute.
The legislation will be taken up by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The French ISPs and American access providers both argue that the government shouldn't confuse the messenger with the message.
"The majority of providers transmit 6,000 to 8,000 newsgroups a day with between 100,000 and 120,000 messages," AFPI director Francois Benveniste said in a statement last week. "Among these messages, there is certainly content that is against the law in France (no doubt less than 5 percent), just like the content that is distributed by the postal service or in the cargo holds of Air France."