The European Union (EU) has voted on Tuesday, November 14, to pass the new Consumer Protection Cooperation regulation, a new EU-wide applicable law that gives extra power to national consumer protection agencies, but which also contains a vaguely worded clause that also grants them the power to block and take down websites without judicial oversight.
The new law "establishes overreaching Internet blocking measures that are neither proportionate nor suitable for the goal of protecting consumers and come without mandatory judicial oversight," Member of the European Parliament Julia Reda said in a speech in the European Parliament Plenary during a last ditch effort to amend the law (video below).
"According to the new rules, national consumer protection authorities can order any unspecified third party to block access to websites without requiring judicial authorization," Reda added later in the day on her blog.
This new law is an EU regulation and not a directive, meaning its obligatory for all EU states, which do not have to individually adopt it.
Work on the new Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) regulation started back in 2016, and the process was set in motion to provide better consumer protection measures for EU consumers and a simpler intra-state cooperation mechanism that could be used to track and take down infringing traders.
The CPC set out in motion with good intentions, but sometimes in the spring of 2017, the proposed regulation received a series of amendments that watered down some consumer protections but kept intact the provisions that ensured national consumer protection agencies can go after and block or take down websites.
For example, the new CPC has removed the ability of national consumer protection agencies to force "mandatory consumer compensation" from abusive traders, leaving this as voluntary and at "the trader's initiative."
Further, the new CPC does not allow national consumer protection agencies to force abusive traders to restitute illicit profits obtained by infringements on consumer protection laws.
Instead, the new CPC gives national consumer protection agencies the legal power to inquire and obtain information about domain owners from registrars and Internet Service Providers.
They also have the power to block websites they believe to be infringing on consumer rights, and even take over their domains.
National protection agencies that up until now have been the organizations looking for sour milk in market chains and defective electronics will gain the power to order ISPs to block access to websites all over the EU. For such measures, these organizations will need to coordinate with local ISPs and create a country-wide Internet blocking infrastructure, even in countries were such intrusive practices have not been seen.
CPC factsheets and guidance documents claim this new legal frame could only be used for websites that sell scam products or break EU-wide consumer protection laws, such as e-commerce stores or travel booking sites that do not refund users, use fake product images, sell inexistent products, and so on.
Consumer protection laws are always needed to protect customers against cases like Infurn.com, a website that peddled modern furniture but never delivered and hid the identity of its owners via data protection laws that prevented the domain registrar from revealing who was behind the scheme.
But as MEP Reda points out, without any mandatory judicial oversight, this new regulation could be abused, similarly to how much regulation passed to deal with one topic is often hijacked and applied in other areas.
As many users have already pointed out on social media, the new CPC is the perfect regulation RIAA, MPAA, and other copyright enforcement agencies have been waiting to combat illegal torrenting portals. Technically, movie or music studios put out "products," while torrent portals provide "scam" or "fake" versions of the same items, falling under the CPC's umbrella.
But while piracy has its good and bad sides, most should be afraid when this regulation is twisted by some member states to block access to non-e-commerce sites.
Besides the website blocking clause, authorities will also be able to request information from banks to detect the identity of the responsible trader, to freeze assets, and to carry out mystery shopping to check geographical discrimination or after-sales conditions.
Overall, the new CPC addresses the changing landscape of modern commerce, but privacy advocates argue that blocking and taking down websites should only be done with judicial oversight, not left to the whims of unqualified consumer protection agents.