Friday, August 1, 2014

Austrian Supreme Court Confirms Open-Ended Website Blocking Injunctions [UPC Telekabel Wien]

Last Thursday, the Austrian Supreme Court (OGH) issued the decision (OGH, 4 Ob 71/14s) in the proceedings that gave rise to the UPC Telekabel C-314/12 reference before the Court of Justice of the European Union. OGH confirmed the lower court decision, which granted an open-ended website blocking injunction against the biggest Austrian ISP. Although the outcome was quite predictable, the reasoning of the court is very interesting.

First of all, OGH comes to the conclusion that open-ended website blocking injunctions are the only (sic!) available form of such a measure under Art. 8(3) implementation [§ 81(1a) UrhG] in Austria [Ein Anspruch auf bestimmte Maßnahmen lässt sich weder aus diesem Wortlaut noch aus dem ihm zugrunde liegenden Ausschließungsrecht ableiten ... Zwar wäre rechtspolitisch auch eine andere Lösung denkbar; nach geltendem österreichischen Recht hat es aber auf dieser Grundlage bei der Beschränkung der in Art 8 Abs 3 Info-RL genannten „Anordnungen“ auf Erfolgsverbote zu bleiben. § 81 Abs 1a UrhG bietet daher keine Grundlage, dem Access-Provider konkrete Maßnahmen zur Verhinderung des Zugangs zu einer Website mit rechtsverletzenden Inhalten vorzuschreiben]. And that specific injunctions are not provided for in the Austrian law.

The Court supports this reasoning by both citing the case-law from the field of law of nuisance, and by arguing that measure-specific injunctions are more serious interference than open-ended ones, because they remove the flexibility from the obliged party (Dieser Unterlassungsanspruch ist auf Unterlassung der Mitwirkung an einem Eingriff in ein absolut geschütztes Recht gerichtet. Ein weitergehender Anspruch auf konkrete Maßnahmen ergibt sich daraus nach geltendem Recht nicht). OGH borrows numerous legal principles from law of nuisance when it concludes that traditionally plaintiffs had only a claim of defence against the interference itself and never had a claim for exact positive measures, which could prove to be ineffective in the course of time. In other words, you could never compel your neighbour to erect a certain type of fence if the interference in question could have been prevented by other sufficient means, which the defendant gave preference to.

It should be reminded that it was the CJEU itself, who suggested that this kind of flexibility is something that reduces the conflict with the right to conduct a business. I have criticized this for number of reasons here. But even if you disagree with me on all of those grounds, consider following. Is in it weird that this flexibility is somehow not appreciated by the ISPs themselves who should be its primary beneficiaries?

Second, OGH examines in detail whether the Austrian legislation complies with the requirements of i) review of reasonableness before any fine for noncompliance is imposed, and ii) possibility of users of an ISP to challenge the website block ex post. After lengthy discussion of the national provisions on execution proceedings, OGH suggests that it found a way how to implement this requirement into the law. It is very interesting that the Court assumes that in absence of such Union-conform interpretation, the Austrian law would be incompliant with the Article 8(3) [Diese unionsrechtlich begründete Auffassung wäre jedoch - ebenfalls aus unionsrechtlicher Sicht - höchst problematisch. Denn sie führte faktisch zur Unanwendbarkeit von § 81 Abs 1a UrhG, wodurch Österreich seine auf Art 8 Abs 3 InfoRL beruhende Pflicht verletzte, im nationalen Recht Regelungen vorzusehen, wonach Rechteinhaber gerichtliche Anordnungen gegen Vermittler erwirken können]. In other words, the Court apparently thinks that website blocking injunctions are part of the minimal standard required by the Union law.

As to second requirement, the reasoning of the Court is even more interesting. It follows my anticipation presented in JIPLP that such claims of users could have their legal basis in the Internet contract with an ISP [Kunden des Providers könnten ihre Rechte auf vertraglicher Grundlage gegen diesen durchsetzen]. The Court explains:

Dieses Erfordernis ist im österreichischen Recht schon deswegen erfüllt, weil Kunden ihren Provider auf vertraglicher Grundlage in Anspruch nehmen können, wenn sie Sperrmaßnahmen für unzulässig oder überschießend halten. Denn der Vertrag zwischen dem Access-Provider und seinen Kunden wird im Regelfall dahin auszulegen sein, dass alle - aber auch nur solche - Website-Sperren zulässig sind, die den Vorgaben des EuGH entsprechen. Schon diese Möglichkeit genügt, um das vom EuGH betonte Recht der Nutzer auf rechtmäßigen Zugang zu Informationen zu wahren. Um der Gefahr einander widersprechender Entscheidungen entgegenzuwirken, wird der Provider in diesem Fall dem Rechteinhaber, der eine Sperre veranlasst hat, den Streit verkünden können.

For non-German speakers [very quick and rusty translation]:

This requirement is already fulfilled in the Austrian law because the customers can sue their provider on the contractual basis in case they consider the blocking measures not lawful or excessive. Because the contract between the access provider and his consumers is to be, as a rule, interpreted meaning that all - but only those - website blocking injunctions are permitted, which correspond to requirements of the CJEU. Already this possibility suffices to guarantee the right of the customers to legal access to information, which was stressed by the CJEU. In order to reduce the risk of conflicting decisions, the provider will be in such a case able to announce the dispute to the right holder, who gave rise to such blocking.
The part that is most surprising for me comes only after this. OGH goes on to say that this does not exhaust the possibility of a user and that any user can also sue directly the rightholder [Darüber hinaus kann erwogen werden, dass Nutzer ihr Recht auf rechtmäßigen Informationszugang auch unmittelbar gegen einen Rechteinhaber geltend machen können, der es - mittelbar - durch die Veranlassung unzulässiger oder überschießender Sperrmaßnahmen verletzt]. I see you asking -- on what basis for God's sake?

Well, OGH has a pretty interesting answer. It opens by saying that CJEU "evidently assumes" that such a right of a user has an erga omnes effect, ie must be respected by all third parties, including right holders. This would mean that a user can object in the execution proceedings compliance with its right to legal access to information. But this is peanuts compared to what comes next. From the reasoning of OGH who is calling this right - an absolute right - it appears plausible that a user could sue directly also a right holder or a provider (sic!) for interference with a right to lawful access to information in a same way as you sue for an infringement of a right to intellectual property. No question, this would be revolutionary as so far all discussion about limitation of lawful access were only of human rights nature [which are of course, not directly invokable against the private individuals]. Unfortunately, OGH then questions this novelty itself by saying that this would apply only if the CJEU really meant to say this [see, similarly surprised Lehofer]. I probably do not need to stress too much what would such a right to lawful access to information as an absolute right enforceable by tort law mean for net neutrality or other debates.

What I miss in the decision is the issue of transparency. Possibility of users to challenge website blocking is dependent on transparency of what is being blocked. Giving users right to challenge, but at the same time keeping factual conditions for such right unfavourable seems to be schizophrenic.

All in all, this decision means that Austrian courts will be issuing open-ended website blocking injunctions in the future. Moreover, Austrian ISPs will need to figure out themselves what exactly to do in order to prevent any fines being imposed on them. If the provider does nothing to prevent access to websites, it will be most likely fined. The tragedy of this is not only legal uncertainty and waste of resources this creates, but also that CJEU's threshold of effective measures that are preventing or seriously discouraging the access to a targeted website and which do not lead to unbearable sacrifices for an access provider, will be most likely forgotten after the first meeting of risk averse shareholders.

PS: Fans of historical doctrinal debates might be interested that OGH at some point seems to endorse my view of (Roman) origin of this type of injunctions, when it says:
Der hier strittige Anspruch, das Vermitteln des Zugangs zu einer bestimmten Website zu unterlassen, ist gleich zu beurteilen. Denn auch dabei geht es um die Abwehr eines Eingriffs in ein dinglich wirkendes Ausschließungsrecht.
Who read my paper on in rem character of such injunctions, might know what I mean here. For others, I recommend to have a look.

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