Should teenagers who illegally download music, films and the like in their bedrooms be treated like criminal gangs counterfeiting everything from life-saving drugs to Gucci handbags?
Yes, according to some members of Parliament and lobby groups for the content industry who are amplifying their message now in the hope of influencing an important report being discussed in the European Parliament this week.
Mareille Gallo, a French MEP in the center-right European People's Party (EPP), has tabled a report that aims to lump Internet piracy with the broader problem of counterfeiting. She believes that illegal filesharing is killing Europe's culture and harming its economy, so tough measures are needed to prevent it.
She supported a campaign by actors' groups aimed at highlighting the costs Europe will pay if it doesn't clamp down on Internet piracy. In 2008 the EU's music, film, TV and software industries lost an estimated €10 billion in revenue due to Internet piracy, according to a study unveiled by the actors' groups.
"Based on current projections and assuming no significant policy changes, the European Union's creative industries could expect to see cumulative retail revenue losses of as much as €240 billion by 2015, resulting in 1.2 million jobs lost by 2015," the study concluded.
The study was unveiled just before the Gallo report was discussed by Parliament's internal market committee and by the industry committee.
According to several MEPs and lobby groups on both sides of the debate, opinion in Parliament is turning against Gallo's report, and many are trying to insert safeguards into it that would ensure a clear distinction between Internet piracy and counterfeiting.
"The debate is moving away from treating the two issues as the same. Counterfeiting is done on a commercial level by dangerous criminals, while Internet piracy is mostly done by young people at home. You can't compare the two," said Jan Albrecht, a German MEP from the Green Party.
He said that in recent months there has been "a U-turn in thinking among MEPs about fundamental citizens' rights," after nearly a decade when civil rights were sacrificed in the fight against terrorism. Earlier this year the European Parliament blocked an agreement to share citizens' personal financial data with US authorities, the so-called SWIFT affair, named after a money transfer company responsible for trillions of euros in transfers each year.
Last week a large majority of MEPs from across the political divide supported a resolution calling on the European Commission to open up secret trade negotiations with the US and others, known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). In February, parts of the ACTA negotiating text were leaked, revealing plans to clamp down on illegal filesharing as well as on counterfeiting, by making ISPs (Internet service providers) legally liable for the content uploaded and downloaded by their subscribers.
"The Parliament's ACTA resolution calls on the Commission to limit the scope of the trade agreement to counterfeiting only. If the Commission listens to the Parliament and makes the changes the resolution calls for, then there won't be a problem regarding citizens' fundamental rights," said Joe McNamee, an advocacy coordinator with the campaign group European Digital Rights.
Failure to distinguish between counterfeiting and Internet piracy in EU law could result in the passing of laws too blunt to tackle the serious and often life threatening problems of counterfeiting, and too draconian to tackle illegal filesharing, McNamee said. "Everyone loses by linking these two things," McNamee said.
The debate about the Gallo report comes as the European Commission examines whether to resurrect an EU directive on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, which was killed off before being passed in 2007 due to the sensitivity of the debate, particularly concerning copyright enforcement.
If the Gallo report is changed in a way that makes a clear distinction between counterfeiting and piracy, then any enforcement directive being drafted by the Commission can be expected to be proportionate to the crimes it aims to address, McNamee said. But he added that if it gets adopted in the form its author wants, then there is a real risk that an IPR enforcement directive will impose criminal sanctions on illegal filesharers, an idea that was dismissed as too draconian when the directive was first debated.