Monday 10 October 2011

Digital Economy Act appeal: more detail

As I said on Saturday, TalkTalk and BT have obtained permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal in their judicial review of the Digital Economy Act 2010 ("the DEA").

Thanks to the counsel for the appellants I now have a little more information. The appeal is going forward on essentially the first four grounds that were put forward at the original judicial review hearing. The appellants did not appeal on the fifth ground: proportionality. I thought it might be useful, at this stage, to give an extremely rough outline of those four grounds.

The first objection concerns the Technical Standards Directive (83/189/EEC), the aim of which is that any laws that impose technical standards on goods or services (known as "technical standards" and "rules on services") are reported to the European Commission in enough time for the impact of the proposed law on intra-community trade to be assessed and any objections to be raised. This is known as the "standstill period". Failure to comply with the procedure renders the relevant law unenforceable.

The appellants say: "The DEA is a technical standard and/or rule on services; it wasn't notified to the Commission before it was passed, therefore it is void. The government responds: "No it isn't! Its not nearly detailed enough to be a technical standard etc at this stage, you have to wait for all the little statutory instruments we are going to make under it before there's enough detail to need notification."

The second ground concerns the E-Commerce Directive. As readers may know, this gives various kinds of immunity to providers of "information society services" and in particular to ISP's who, as "mere conduits", are not liable for the information that they transmit.

The appellants case is that the DEA does impose liability for information transmitted and/or it imposes a requirement to remove or disable access to information. Neither of these, they say, can be imposed on a mere conduit. In the High Court, the appellants also argued that the DEA imposed a "general obligation to monitor" which is forbidden by article 15 of the directive. That argument is no longer live - I think (though I may have misunderstood this) because the Court of Appeal did not give permission on that point.

The third ground is based on the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications (2002/58/EC) which (amongst other things) imposes conditions on the processing of traffic data by ISP's. Ordinarily, traffic data must be anonymised or erased when it is no longer needed for the purposes of transmission, except for certain limited exceptions and derogations. The appellants case is that the DEA's purpose does not fall within any of those exceptions or derogations and so keeping the traffic data in order to enforce copyright is not permitted.

The last of the four grounds is built on the Authorisation Directive. The Authorisation Directive was aimed at opening up the electronic communications sector to competition by preventing member states from imposing onerous conditions on prospective comms providers. To that end, a member state may not charge a prospective ISP fees, or impose conditions on them, unless authorised to do so by the directive. The appellants say that is exactly what the DEA does, or will do, and that the DEA therefore offends against the Authorisation Directive. The appellants won a partial victory on this point in the High Court, managing to knock out a requirement that they pay a share of OFCOM's fees for managing the initial obligations code.

I am extremely pleased that permission has been given. Being optimistic, I can hope that light will be thrown - possibly even by the CJEU if the Court of Appeal consults it - on any one of these directives. They are all of some importance in my practice and so I am understandably keen to see as much clarity as possible. With four directives to chose from there's every chance that some useful principles will come out of this case.

In any event, it means that the "graduated response" intended by the DEA is going to be just that farther in the future. In related news, Julian Hupper (Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge) has tweeted his plan to try to have the web blocking provision (section 17) of the DEA repealed. The government have already indicated that they are unlikely to use section 17 in the foreseeable future, so this may be uncontroversial. I will watch events with interest as they unfold.

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