The EU has agreed that a user's Internet access may be restricted, if necessary and proportionate, only after a fair and impartial procedure including the right to be heard.

It replaces an amendment that had been voted through the European Parliament in May, which stated that Internet access was a fundamental right and disconnection could only go ahead with the approval of a judicial authority rather than an administrative body.

The decision removes a potential obstacle for European governments who wish to suspend or disconnect Internet connections of users illegally downloading music and films, although there were always questions about the earlier amendment's validity.

The U.K. proposed a three-strikes law last week and France has passed its Creation and Internet Law, although French politicians previously denied the European Parliament amendment would affect their anti-piracy measures. In the event, France's own Constitutional Council ruled on the need for judicial authority to oversee any disconnection of users' accounts.

Member states were under no obligation to accept the proposal on fundamental rights - it had been rejected by the Council - although it did encourage activists for Internet freedom who oppose three-strikes laws.

However, member states always questioned the parliament's authority to dictate national judicial arrangements. There were doubts about the legal validity of the original parliamentary amendment, as it appeared to go beyond the European Community's jurisdiction because it would arguably have required a harmonisation of member states' judicial systems.

MEPs from the European Parliament and European Council representatives reached agreement last night (Nov. 4) on the outstanding issue in the telecoms package, which will revamp telecoms regulations in the EU. The dispute has delayed the overall telecoms package.

But MEPs insisted at the conciliation meeting on establishing adequate procedural safeguards for Internet access, in line with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms guaranteeing effective judicial protection.

Restrictions on Internet access may "only be imposed if they are appropriate, proportionate and necessary within a democratic society," the agreement stated. Such measures may be taken only "with due respect for the principle of presumption of innocence and the right to privacy" and as a result of "a prior, fair and impartial procedure" guaranteeing "the right to be heard... and the right to an effective and timely judicial review." The previous amendment required a court hearing for any such decision rather than a provision for judicial review as an ultimate appeal.

In future, Internet users may refer to these new provisions in court proceedings when an EU state cuts their Internet access.

Parliament's delegation approved the joint text unanimously, although the compromise still has to be approved by the full Parliament and Council.

Parliament's third-reading vote is scheduled for Nov. 23-26 November. If Parliament or the European Council do not approve the joint text at third-reading, the electronic communications framework directive is deemed not adopted and it requires a new legislative proposal from the European Commission.

"It is very good news for citizens that we have reached an agreement on a new Internet freedom provision," said EU telecoms minister Viviane Reding.

"This is unprecedented across the globe and sends a strong signal that the EU takes fundamental rights very seriously. The reform will substantially enhance consumer rights and consumer choice."

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