Back in November 2017, the European Union passed the “Consumer Protection Cooperation” (CPC) regulation.
In theory, the regulation protects consumers against commerce sites that infringe on European consumer law. However, it contained a hidden clause which has proved to be highly controversial.
Keep reading to find out more.
What Makes CPC So Controversial?
The Consumer Protection Cooperation is a piece of regulation, not a directive. As such, it will be law across all EU countries.
The regulation’s core goal is to force ISPs to help countries identify and prosecute rogue traders, conduct mystery shopping investigations, and “explicit display of a warning to consumers.”
The intentions sound noble, but it’s Article 9(4) which has activists up in arms. The Article governs how the new law will be enforced. Here’s a snippet of what it says:
“[Countries have] the power to order a hosting service provider to remove, disable, or restrict access to an online interface. Or where appropriate, the power to order domain registries or registrars to delete a fully qualified domain name and to allow the competent authority concerned to register it, including by requesting a third party or other public authority to implement such measures.”
To translate the legal jargon, it means all EU countries must now create the necessary infrastructure to block websites, even in places where the framework for such actions was not previously available.
The rules will be enforced by all ISPs operating within a country’s borders, and they will have to immediately implement the block upon receiving a government’s request.
How Countries Can Block Websites
The CPC regulation gives countries’ national consumer protection agencies four broad new powers. They are:
- The legal authority to obtain data on domain owners from domain registrars.
- The ability to block websites that encroach on people’s consumer rights across the entire EU
- Seize domains names that encroach on people’s consumer rights.
- Freeze bank assets and bank details of rogue traders.
The process for blocking sites is worryingly simple. No court order—or even legal investigation—is required. The decision is purely at the discretion of the consumer agencies.
Why Is Article 9(4) Concerning?
Let’s be very clear: the article is only supposed to be used to block sites that are breaking consumer protection laws.
However, the most concerning part is the infrastructure that’s now in place. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how authorities could easily abuse the law in the future.
— OONI (@OpenObservatory) September 26, 2017
To give a very recent example, you need to look no further than October 2017’s independence referendum in Catalonia, Spain.
During the controversial vote, the Spanish courts ordered ISPs to block all websites about the ballot that had the .cat top-level domain name for the region, as well as making them “monitor” more than 120,000 additional sites.
We’ve seen similar tales emerge out of Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, and more. It’s fair to say governments have a track record for this sort of thing.
And don’t be fooled by thinking such a thing could never happen where you live. Just check out the list of sites currently blocked in the United Kingdom alone. Some were accidental; some were very much intentional.
How the CPC Regulation Affects Piracy and Torrents
We know what you’re thinking: “I live in North America, why should I care?” Well, in a word: torrents.
It’s very easy to see how the vaguely-worded new law is almost a ready-made solution to the ongoing issues around piracy and copyright theft.
Organizations with powerful lobbying arms such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have long wanted new laws that allow them to target torrent portals.
In the context of media, one could view movie studios and record labels as offering legitimate “products,” while The Pirate Bay and its alternatives offer “scam” or “fake” versions.
Of course, we don’t condone piracy. However, the inevitable widespread blocking of torrent portals will have a significant impact on legitimate torrent sites that focus on offering legal freeware and open-source software.
Ultimately, it will hurt torrents as a form of sharing technology, and that’s a bad thing. If this worries you, note that there are ways to avoid torrent blocking.
CPC Erodes Consumer Protections
Earlier in the article, you will recall that we said the European Union’s primary (or at least, public) motivation for the new regulation was to strengthen consumers’ protections across the continent.
In practice, the new law has been roundly criticized for having the exact opposite effect. Many experts claim the CPC instead weakens those very same protections.
To fully explain, we need to go back to 2016 when work on the project started. At the time, the intentions appeared to be honest.
However, the machinations of the EU law-making process meant the first draft of the new regulation was subjected to a slew of amendments, most of which occurred in the spring of 2017.
By the time the proposal emerged out the other side, law-makers had watered it down significantly. The changes negatively impacted consumers.
For example, consumer protection agencies can no longer force mandatory compensation from website traders who’ve broken the rules. Instead, it’s now voluntary and left up to each individual trader to resolve with the wronged party.
Similarly, the agencies cannot legally force illegal traders to give up their profits earned from breaking the rules.
When Does CPC Come Into Force?
The European Parliament passed the regulation by 592 votes to 80. It was later ratified by the European Commission and is set to become law in late 2019.
What Can You Do About CPC?
As is so often the way, the best way to circumnavigate government blocks is to use a VPN effectively. You can use it to give yourself an IP address outside the EU and thus continue to access the sites. We recommend either ExpressVPN or CyberGhost.
Is CPC as Bad as It Sounds?
Of course, it’s to be hoped that the democratic structure in most Europe countries is strong enough to resist an over-zealous government using the law for its own means, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a frightening reminder of how quickly your internet freedoms can be eroded.
What seems like an innocent regulation can quickly become a tool for harm. People around the world will have to hope that’s not what the EU regulations morph into.
Remember, you can always try to bypass blocked sites, but you have no guarantees of success.