A significant privacy decision by the European Court of Justice is focusing renewed attention on U.S. copyright enforcement efforts, particularly the aggressive efforts of the Recording Industry Association of America to identify peer-to-peer users.

A Spanish recording-rights group, Promusicae, sued a European telecommunications firm, Telefnica, over its refusal to turn over the names of individuals that Promusicae believed were illegally swapping protected music. On Tuesday, the court ruled in favor of Telefnica and held that European law "does not require member states to lay down an obligation to disclose personal data in the context of civil proceedings."

However, the court added, individual members of the European Union can pass their own legislation imposing a requirement on companies within their borders to turn over such information when copyright infringement is suspected. In doing so, however, the court warned that member states should make sure their laws comply with the directives of the EU and that they do not conflict with either fundamental rights or the general principles of EU law.

Unanswered Questions

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, characterized the court's decision as a "very important development." He cautioned, however, that the precise impact of the court's ruling may not be immediately known.

"Because of the overlapping nature of EU directives and the principle of subsidiarity which tends to decentralize authority within the European Union," Rotenberg said, "it can be a little difficult to interpret decisions of the European Court of Justice. But we believe this is a clear statement about the need to safeguard privacy for Internet users and to make clear that there is no obligation in European community law to require retention or disclosure of records concerning those who may have violated copyright law."

Not surprisingly, representatives of the music industry offered a different spin on the court's decision. John Kennedy, chairman and CEO of IFPI, an international music rights group, said the court's decision underscored the need for tools to fight online piracy.

"The judgment," Kennedy said, "means that music-rights owners can still take actions to enforce their civil rights, and it has sent out a clear signal that [European countries] have to get the right balance between privacy and enforcement of intellectual property rights and that intellectual property rights can neither be ignored nor neglected."

Impact on the United States?

Despite the fact that the Internet is a global resource, the court decision does not have any direct effect on U.S. privacy or copyright laws. But Rotenberg hopes it will serve as an example for American lawmakers.

"The European Union has generally done a better job than the United States incorporating privacy interests into emerging legal questions," Rotenberg said, "in part because there is a stronger fundamental right -- Article 8 -- and clearer framework legislation -- the EU Data Protection Directive."