By Tjibbe Hoekstra
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Netherlands plans to crack down on Internet service providers that allow access to file-sharing sites such as Pirate Bay, though it will not make it an offence for individuals to download from these sites.
Wiebe Alkema, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, told Reuters the law would be amended to reflect a recent court ruling, but would not criminalize the downloaders, as is the case in most European countries.
A Dutch court earlier this month ordered ISPs Ziggo and XS4ALL to block access to Pirate Bay by February 1 because it allows copyright infringement of music and film content.
"We aim to strike a just balance between protecting against infringements of copyright and the importance of a free and open Internet," he said, adding that the proposal, to be submitted to parliament before summer, will state that websites that facilitate copyright infringements are acting against the law.
Both Ziggo, owned by private equity groups Cinven and Warburg Pincus, and XS4ALL, owned by telecoms firm KPN, risk a penalty of 10,000 euros a day, up to a maximum of 250,000 euros, if they do not obey the court order.
The penalty is payable to Dutch anti-piracy group BREIN, which represents major entertainment companies and which brought the case against XS4ALL and Ziggo. BREIN has asked other providers including UPC, KPN and T-Mobile to block access to Pirate Bay, and they could eventually face court action too.
Ziggo, UPC, KPN, XS4ALL and T-Mobile together have more than 85 percent of the market, Dutch research firm Telecompaper said. UPC is owned by Liberty Global Inc., while Deutsche Telekom AG operates under the T-Mobile brand.
Ziggo said it would block the Pirate Bay website by Tuesday, but will appeal against the decision.
"Ziggo thinks that an access provider should not be forced into the role of police cop. Besides this, the verdict opens the door to further undesirable developments threatening internet freedom," the company said on its website.
Other jurisdictions are also clamping down. The United States is seeking the extradition of Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload.com, from New Zealand, saying that he was the ringleader of a group that netted $175 million since 2005 by copying and distributing music, movies and other copyrighted content without authorization.
Dutch consultancy Considerati said in a report that about 40 percent of Dutch internet users regularly download unlicensed content, compared with a European average of 27 percent, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).
Considerati estimates downloading of unlicensed content costs the Dutch music industry up to 100 million euros a year.
BREIN expects the use of file-sharing websites, which also include 4shared, Rapidshare and Dutch website Spot-net, to fall quickly following the court decision.
In France the number of file-sharers using sites like Pirate Bay fell by more than a quarter after downloading by consumers was criminalized in 2009, according to the IFPI.
"Because consumers now will be denied access to illegal file-sharing platforms, they will have to find their way to legal providers to download music and films," BREIN spokesman Tim Kuik said.
But Kuik said a new law was still necessary, as attempts to close down file-sharing sites hosted from unknown locations abroad, like Pirate Bay, have been unsuccessful so far.
"Currently only sites where people can upload content can be banned, while sites which only facilitate downloading are legal. Besides this, access providers which have been asked to block the sites refuse to cooperate," Kuik added.
Ot van Daalen of Dutch online rights group Bits of Freedom said blocking such sites would set a dangerous precedent because "by making legislation enabling the banning of websites, as the Dutch government is planning to do now, we would be using the same technologies as countries like Iran and China."
European Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier has said he plans to propose revised legislation on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, in view of recent developments in the field of online piracy, by the end of the year.
(Reporting by Tjibbe Hoekstra; Editing by Will Waterman)