Euro-IR Project Main Index

The APC European Internet Rights Project

Internet Rights report on the European Union

By Martine Paulet & Chris Bailey

European Union:

    15 member states (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United-Kingdom)

    Population :377 million people

    GDP : 8,700 billion euros

    Information Society : 5% of European GDP

The European Union (EU) institutions are striving to make the EU the world leader in ICT. There are 150 million Internet users in Europe (40% of the European population), the same number as there are in the USA.

In 1999, the European Commission (EC) launched the eEurope initiative to widen Internet access and develop a digital mentality for every European citizen.

The Stockholm summit, March 2001, showed mixed results and success for eEurope. European citizens seem not to trust the Internet regarding security, data and privacy protection. In the fields of administration and education, all eprocesses are very slow - it is where national governments have more influence.

Telecommunications infrastructure

The Lisbon summit, in March 2000, noted that "for Europe to fully seize the growth and job potential of the digital, knowledge-based economy, business and citizens must have access to an inexpensive, world-class communications infrastructure." This aim has been reiterated by Erkki Liikanen, the European Commissioner responsible for the Information Society Promotion Office (ISPO).

High telecommunications costs were associated with quasi monopoly suppliers dominating the European market. The main goal of EU telecommunications policy has been to enhance competitiveness. The "full competition" directive (96/19/EC) sought to end discrimination between telecom providers, i.e. more than 300 different operators. However, former public telecom providers have tended to be slow in opening up to other providers. Therefore, the EC launched investigations to answer complaints in different member states. The European Court of Justice recently condemned Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg for not fulfilling their obligations on this issue.

Availability of Internet access

One of the eEurope initiative objectives is to bring all Europeans online. Recommendation 2000/417/EC on unbundled access to the local loop calls for universal service and affordable access for all EU citizens. It proposes that more public access points should be created in public administrations, education and cultural institutions (aim of 1 PC per 5 pupils) and encouragement of more personal computer ownership. 80% of schools are now equipped with Internet access. The EC Netdays project supported learning and teaching projects encouraging EU schools to organise training in creating websites at hospitals and to the disabled. Futurum is a new EC website designed to use the Internet to debate "The Future of Europe".

The main obstacles to Internet access are low levels of communications infrastructure and sections of the population with weaker IT knowledge. This is reflected in much higher Internet access in Northern Europe than in the South.

Access connections fees have decreased by 25% in the EU as a whole, but there has been considerable inequalities between Member States. The maximum reduction is 50% in Denmark, but costs have actually increased in Finland, Italy and Spain. The average EU price of access still remains higher than in the USA.

Position of Internet Service Providers

The majority of EU members states now have ISP associations and many of these are members of the European federation EuroISPA. The associations have codes of conduct that they expect members to comply with. Starting from Britain, where the ISPA has adopted a policy of "co-regulation" of the Internet with the police, as part of the implementation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, ISPs are coming increasingly under pressure to work with and assist law enforcement bodies in carrying out surveillance of their users and in censoring content.


EU legislation concerning the Internet started very early. As of 1987 the first decisions were about standardisation in the field of information technologies and communications (87/95/EEC, 91/C325/02). The objective of implementing the Single Market by 1992 gave an impetus to the development of technical business-oriented legislation designed to boost competition with the aim of producing wider choice, higher quality and lower tariffs.

In the late 1990's the Internet itself became the subject of specific Communications, Action Plans and Directives. These include:

Since the 1999 eEurope initiative, the process of developing Internet specific legislation has speeded up.

The European Convention on Human Rights does not apply to the EU and its institutions as a whole, since it is not a country and can not therefore sign up to the Convention. Some moves are, however, being made to change this situation and allow the EU to become subject to the Convention. All individual Member States have incorporated the Convention into their legal systems. The EU has now produced its own Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, attempts to make this Charter legally binding have so far been blocked, particularly by the UK. Both the ECHR and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights include clauses relevant to Internet Rights, particularly concerning freedom of speech and rights to privacy. In the preparation for the Charter of Fundamental Rights there was considerable discussion on the need to define new rights concerning uses of new technology, including the Internet. This issue has since been raised both from within the European Parliament and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.


In the context of the discussion at the Council of Europe on producing a "cybercrime" Convention, the EU has initiated its own debate:
  • In 1997 a study was commissioned legal aspects of computer crime

  • A follow up study was completed in October 2000

  • In January 2001 the European Commission issued a Communication on cybercrime COM(2000) 890
    • The European Commission invited written comments from all interested parties on the issues addressed in this Communication by 23 March 2001 - Comments received
    • It held a Public Hearing on the Communication on 7 March 2001
    • The Commission will establish and chair an EU Forum "in which law enforcement agencies, service providers, network operators, consumer groups and data protection authorities will be brought together with the aim of enhancing co-operation at EU level. It will be open and transparent, and will use the Internet as much as possible to ensure full "on-line" consultation and discussion."

EU Cybercrime Website

Internet censorship

The main EU moves towards Internet censorship are taking place through the "self-regulation" policy of the Action Plan on Promoting Safer Use of the Internet. This calls for co-operation between ISPs and law-enforcement bodies to remove "illegal" and restrict "harmful" content. The plan concentrates particularly on introducing filtering and content rating software and "hotlines" which anyone can phone to complain about what they consider to be illegal or harmful content. This idea is modelled on the UK's Internet Watch Foundation.

European Union Action Plan on Promoting Safer Use of the Internet - Report for APC

There are 10 EU funded projects with 25 million euros allocated to implementing the Action Plan during its 4 year period of operation (1999-2002).

Some of the issues dealt with in the Action Plan are now coming within the remit of the cybercrime discussion. The Commission's Communication on cybercrime seems to be defining an overall policy on censorship when it states:
    "There is a clear consensus therefore that activity on networks should be viewed using the basic legal principles that apply elsewhere. The Internet is not an anarchic ghetto where society's rules do not apply. Equally, though, the ability of governments and public authorities to restrict the rights of individuals and monitor potentially unlawful behaviour should be no greater on public networks than it is in the outside, off-line world. The requirement that restrictions to fundamental rights and freedoms be properly justified, necessary and proportional in view of other public policy objectives, must also apply in cyberspace."

This proposed policy of "using the basic legal principles that apply elsewhere" would seem to differ from the legal position of the Internet in the US, where the Reno v ACLU judgement defined the Internet, because of its interactive nature, as being different from other media and requiring special free speech protection.

Internet privacy issues

European Union Directives for data protection in 1995 and 1997 aim at defining European citizens' overall privacy rights. Directive 95/46/EC concerns the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and the free movement of such data. Directive 97/66/EC on telecommunications deals with the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the telecommunications sector.

Article 29 of Directive 95/46/EC set up a Data Protection Working Party as an independent EU Advisory Body on Data
Protection and Privacy operating through the Internal Market DG of the Commission.The Working Party has produced a number of important documents on Privacy and Data Protection.

Full list of Data Protection Working Party Documents
Privacy on the Internet - An integrated EU Approach to On-line Data Protection

It has taken a strong position in favour of protecting the privacy of EU citizens in the face of attempts to encroach on these privacy rights for law enforcement purposes and has criticised the Council of Europe's cybercrime Convention on these grounds:

Opinion 4/2001on the Council of Europe's Draft Convention on Cyber-crime

In July 2001, the European Commission proposed a new Directive (500PC0385) concerning the processing of personal data and the protection of privacy in the electronic communications sector. A conflict is taking place over attempts by the UK, Belgian and Swedish governments, acting via the Council of Ministers, to use this Directive to change the balance of EU data protection and privacy policy to allow new powers of data retention by law enforcement authorities. This move is being strongly opposed by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Data Protection Working Party.

Letter from Chairman of Data Protection Working Party

On June 11, 2001, European Parliament's Citizens' Rights and Freedoms, Justice and Home Affairs Committee voted 22-12 with 5 abstentions in favour of proposals by Rapporteur, Marco Cappato, a Radical MEP from Italy. After the vote Cappato announced:
    "The Civil liberties committee expressed itself in favour of a strict regulation of law enforcement authorities' access to personal data of citizens, such as communication traffic and location data. This decision is fundamental because in this way the EP blocks EU States' efforts underway in the Council to put their citizens under generalised and pervasive surveillance, following the Echelon model."


Echelon, the surveillance system run by the United States, in cooperation with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, that intercepts and spies on private and commercial communications has become a major issue for the European Parliament. In April 1999, the it commissioned a report on Echelon (the STOA Report) by journalist Duncan Campbell. As a result of this report the Parliament set up a Temporary Committee on the ECHELON interception system. After extensive inquiries this Committee produced its own report on Echelon, strongly condemning such surveillance and particularly criticising the UK's role. It queried whether this was compatible with the UK's membership of the EU. It called for the development of easy to use open source European encryption software and proposed that encryption should "become the norm" for email correspondence.

STOA Report

Report by the Temporary Committee on the ECHELON interception system

Duncan Campbell's original 1988 ECHELON report

Report on ECHELON written by Chris Bailey in 1999 for the Labor Media Conference, Seoul

Domain names

The EU wants to create a .eu top level domain in order to establish a clear European identity on the Internet. In December 2000, the EC put this proposal to ICANN. ICANN already agreed in principle to this. A .eu domain name was seen as helping to counter US Internet domination. The use of country code top level domains varies widely between EU member states. Germany is ahead, very close to the USA, but Italy, the Netherlands and the UK remain far behind. but all the others are really weak. Nonetheless the .com remains more than 15 times more important than either the German or the US country domain names.

Access to job opportunities

The EU has proposed an employment strategy to exploit the IT potential job market and, at the same time, increase social cohesion. Communication COM(98)590 on jobs opportunities in the information society calls for broader public access to and more equality among member states and for rural and remote regions. Different actors have been given different roles to play: member states for national plans, the information society industries and the social partners to make sure that the new technologies remain within the European social model. COM(2000)48 complements the the first Communication by looking at the profound effect ICTs will have on the organisation of work. It proposes that ICTs can be used to integrate disabled, isolated and unemployed workers into the work place more easily. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has called for a massive training programme in information society literacy. This includes supplying PCs and software for the workplace trade unions to have Internet access.


The Copyright Directive, adopted in April 2001, harmonises the law on reproduction, distribution and communications in the information society. It allows some private copying. The Directive exempts ISPs from Copyright responsibility over cached websites.

Influencing EU Internet policy

There is considerable scope for social NGOs to influence EU Internet policy and a growing need for them to do so. Because of the international nature of the Internet and the difficulties of regulating it at nation state level, the EU is playing a central role in developing Internet policy for the whole European region and indeed beyond it too. Business and consumer interests have been effectively lobbying at the EU level for their interests in shaping EU Internet policy, but civil society has been severely under-represented. There is, however, a growing interest within the European Parliament in Internet Rights issues, particularly over privacy, and a growing awareness within the European Commission of the need for more consultation with and input from expert groups representing social NGO interests. Opportunities also exist for social NGO input into EU IT training programmes and into some software and technological development programmes.

Reference Sources

7 jours Europe, Un site Internet pour dialoguer avec les jeunes Europeens », 12/03/2001

7 jours Europe, Erkki Liikanen : « Permettre à tous les citoyens de vivre dans la nouvelle économie », 30/10/2000

7 jours Europe, "Netsays" : Internet tisse sa toile dans les écoles, 12/10/1998

Communication from the EC to the Council and EP, The eEurope update, 7-8/12/2001

Euro-IR Project Main Index