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In a major landmark ruling today, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that that ISPs may not be asked to filter Internet content for copyright enforcement purposes. The effect of the ruling will extend into every Member State, where courts are being asked to impose injunctions on ISPs and governments pressured to bring in filtering measures.

The ECJ said that a filtering requirement would contravene the e-commerce directive, as well as the fundamental rights of European citizens. Moreover, it said that there is nothing under EU law to say that copyright is absolutely protected.

The ruling relates the Belgian case of Sabam v Scarlet. Sabam is the Belgian collecting society which had gone to court asking for the ISP, Scarlet, to monitor and block peer-to-peer transfers of music files which it represented. Sabam would not only represent Belgian music, but also international - eg British - music, so such an injunction could have widescale ramifications.

The Belgian High Court had referred a question to the ECJ asking whether EU law would preclude an injunction asking an ISP to filter for copyrighted content, with a view to blocking the transfer of those files, including as a preventative measure.

The ECJ ruling has declared that EU law would preclude such an injunction to filter. Specifically, it said that the injunction requested would require the ISP to actively monitor all of its customers' traffic, which would contravene the E-commerce directive. The court further said that such an injunction would infringe the right of Internet subscribers to privacy and to freedom of expression.

Interestingly, the ECJ has additionally declared that there is nothing in EU legal framework or in EU case law ' to suggest that copyright is not inviolable and must for that reason be absolutely protected'.

So in other words, copyright does not have absolute protection which would trump other rights. Courts and national governments are bound under EU law to respect a fair balance of all rights.

In light of other judgements such as 20th Century Fox v BT (Hollywood v BT: the wrong kind of knowledge? ), this ruling has very serious implications.

Other commentary on the Sabam v Scarlet ruling in the ECJ is available from LINX and La Quadrature du Net and EDRi

Iptegrity is made available under a non-commercial Creative Commons licence.

Please cite Monica Horten, Sabam v Scarlet: European Court rules that ISPs can't be asked to filter , www.iptegrity.com, 24 November 2011

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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.