France pushes for controls on Skype calls

March 12, 2013 7:08 pm

By James Boxell in Paris and Richard Waters in San Francisco

French prosecutors have been asked to investigate Microsoft’s Skype because of its failure to register in the country as a telecoms operator, in the latest attempt by France to control the activities of global internet companies.

In a statement on Tuesday, the telecoms regulator Arcep said that it had contacted the Paris public prosecutor after the instant messenger group ignored “several requests to declare itself as an electronic communications operator”.

Arcep said the fact that Skype allowed its users to make voice calls to fixed line and mobile numbers in France meant that it provided a telephone service, and therefore had an obligation to allow emergency calls and to allow French police and security services to monitor its voicemail traffic when legally required.

Skype rejected the claims, saying: “We have engaged with Arcep in discussion over the last several months during which we shared our view that Skype is not a provider of electronic communications services under French law.”

While it is doubtful that EU law would allow France to impose criminal sanctions on Skype, whose European headquarters are in Luxembourg, the Arcep complaint is the latest evidence of the country’s willingness to take action against large internet companies.

In February, Google settled a long-running copyright dispute with French newspaper groups by promising to set up a €60m fund to help develop their websites and to send more of its advertising revenues to their sites.

Some lawmakers in the ruling Socialist party have been calling for the imposition of taxes on Google’s activities in France, while a French court has ordered Twitter to identify people behind racist tweets.

But the biggest criticism has come from France’s leading telecoms companies, who argue that companies such as Google and Skype are flooding their networks with data at a time when the operators are struggling to find the funds to invest in networks.

Stéphane Richard, chief executive of France Telecom, the country’s biggest operator, has said that his company is recouping some revenues from the internet companies through private contracts, but he has been one of their most vocal critics.

In January, Xavier Niel, the billionaire investor who owns Free Telecom, put in place a block on web adverts on his fixed-line service for several days in protest at the lack of investment in infrastructure by the web operators.

Bouygues Telecom, the country’s third biggest operator, became the first to break ranks in the stand-off with Skype when it struck a deal in recent weeks that will see it preload Skype on every handset that it sells, with no limitations on usage.

Skype has argued that telecoms operators across Europe often deliberately slow down its service or refuse to carry voice-over-internet services on their mobile phone offerings.

Skype is reluctant to be classed as a telecoms operator in France because of the heavy cost burden of retaining records of internet calls for a given period of time, which would be required by the security services.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.


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