Belgium vs. Yahoo!

The Belgium Supreme Court ruled in an incredibly interesting
case on January 18 2011. The question is whether Belgium law
enforcement agencies can compel Yahoo! Inc. to directly provide data about its
customers using their email service. According to the prosecutor, Yahoo’s email
service could be considered as an ‘electronic communication service’. Following
article 46bis of the Belgium Criminal Procedure Code and assuming Belgian law
enforcement agencies have jurisdiction, this would mean that Belgium law
enforcement agencies could compel Yahoo to directly provide the requested data,
instead of starting legal aid procedures with the United States in order to get
the data. Not surprisingly, Yahoo denied this statement and now Belgium’s
highest court ruled on this decision. The previous decisions of the Court of
Gent and Dendermonde can be found here and here (all in Flemish).

The Supreme Court’s
decision

The Supreme Court of Belgium decided that not just ‘operators
of electronic communication networks’, but everyone who provides electronic
communication services, like the transmission of communication data, can be an
‘electronic communication service provider’. Service providers who offer a
service to customers with which they can send, receive, or spread information
via an electronic network, can also be defined as an ‘electronic communications
provider’. According to the Belgium Supreme Court, these service providers can
be compelled to provide certain data upon request of a public prosecutor on the
basis of article 46bis of the Belgium Criminal Procedure Code. The Court of
Gent – who previously ruled differently in this case – therefore must rule
again in this case.

Basically, the Belgium Supreme Court ruled indirectly that
Yahoo can be considered an ‘electronic communication service provider’ and
could be compelled by a Belgium public prosecutor to provide data on its
customers. The final outcome of the case is not certain yet, but it seems to me
that it might be very difficult for the Court of Gent to rule otherwise.

Are they right?

Theoretically, the interpretation of a ‘communication
service provider’ the Supreme Court seems correct. In the Netherlands we have
similar legislation. The definition of a ‘communication service provider’ derives
from the Cybercrime Convention.
Number 27 (and 26) of the explanatory memorandum of the Cybercrime convention gives
more information about the definition of a ‘service provider’: “27. Under (ii) of the definition, it is
made clear that the term "service provider" also extends to those
entities that store or otherwise process data on behalf of the persons
mentioned under (i). Further, the term includes those entities that store or
otherwise process data on behalf of the users of the services of those
mentioned under (i)
. For example, under this definition, a service
provider includes both services that provide hosting and caching services as
well as services that provide a connection to a network.
However, a mere provider
of content (such as a person who contracts with a web hosting company to host
his web site) is not intended to be covered by this definition if such content
provider does not also offer communication or related data processing
services.”

For my Dutch
readers: 

Volgens ‘Kamerstukken
II
2004/05, 26 671, nr. 7 (Nota van Wijziging wetsvoorstel
Computercriminaliteit II)’ the definition of an ‘aanbieder van een
communicatidienst’ is artikel 126la Sv afkomstig uit het Cybercrime verdrag. Een ‘aanbieder van een communicatiedienst’
is: “iedere publieke of private
instelling die aan de gebruikers van haar diensten de mogelijkheid biedt te
communiceren met behulp van een computersysteem en iedere andere instelling die
computergegevens verwerkt of opslaat ten behoeve van (de gebruikers van) zo’n
communicatiedienst.
Bij dit
laatste kan men denken aan de aanbieders van webhostingdiensten en de beheerder
van websites. In een nieuw artikel in het WvSv wordt daartoe een definitie
opgenomen van het begrip ‘aanbieder van een communicatiedienst’ waarbij nauw
wordt aangesloten bij de begripsbepaling in het Verdrag.
Zie ook ‘Stcrt. 2006, 201, 14 (aanvulling Handboek
voor de opsporingspraktijk)’. We zouden daarom net als de Belgen Yahoo kunnen
zien als een aanbieder van een communicatiedienst. Dat betekent wellicht dat
dit soort diensten aan onze regels van strafvordering moeten voldoen, maar de
vraag is of wij ons recht op deze Amerikaanse diensten kunnen (en willen)
opleggen.

Back to English:

I believe that Yahoo’s e-mail service could be seen as a ‘communication
service provider’. On this part the Supreme Court seems right. However, the
question is whether Belgium can compel Yahoo to comply with its criminal
procedural law. Said differently: does Belgium have jurisdiction over Yahoo? 

Jurisdiction on the
internet

Many other American companies provide similar services like
Yahoo! Inc., such as Google (Gmail), Microsoft (Hotmail), Facebook and Twitter.
These companies can provide very interesting information for law enforcement
agencies. Normally, law enforcement agencies outside the US would have to start
legal aid-procedures to obtain the desired data. Their request would have to
comply with both their national law and the United States’ law. This procedure
costs time and money for law enforcement agencies. The ruling of the Belgium
court could get them excited, because then – at least in Belgium – law
enforcement agencies can obtain data at these companies directly, instead of
going through the cumbersome process of legal aid-procedures. I believe
however, that this approach is too simplistic. The Supreme Court seems to ignore the
complex problem of jurisdiction on the Internet.

Of course, many people feel that companies like Yahoo are
‘situated’ as much in their country as anywhere else in the world. Therefore,
their laws should apply for these services. This is also raised by the public
prosecutor during proceedings of the case at the Court of Dendermonde. Even in
reality it is – because of cloud computing – unclear where their infrastructure
is. What we do know, is that these companies are based in the United States. When
law enforcement agencies want data from these companies they need to obtain it
from this US company. It is understandable law enforcement agencies want data
directly from Yahoo, but in reality Yahoo could probably ignore their request
and force them to use the proper channels.

I wonder if we can reasonably expect Yahoo-like companies to
comply with our own criminal procedure laws. Just within the European Union
there are 27 different jurisdictions and about only half of these countries
ratified the Cybercrime convention. In the United States they also get
compensated more generously than in European countries, when providing such
data. I believe they might even consider the possibility of not providing their
services to certain countries anymore, when they are forced to comply with
national laws of every state they provide their services in. The Court of
Dendermonde mentioned this possibility explicitly. That would not be desirable,
because people rely on these services for their communications. See also the Future of Copyrights’ blog about this.

This ruling tries to deal with the serious issue of
jurisdiction on the Internet, but I don’t think this is the right way to cope
with the problem. It will be interesting to see how the Court of Gent will rule on the Yahoo-case next time. Obviously, more research is needed to find solutions for the problem of jurisdiction on the internet. I
hope I can make a contribution in my PhD-study about this topic.

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