Skype’s looking at a €30,000 ($35,000) fine from a Belgian court that wants to eavesdrop on conversations – something that Microsoft-owned Skype said is 1) technically impossible and 2) shouldn’t apply because the laws are for telecoms, which it isn’t.
Skype lost an appeal of the fine in a Belgian court on Wednesday.
According to the Belgian newspaper Het Belang Van Limburg, the trouble began in 2012, when Belgian authorities came knocking, wanting to listen in on conversations that an organized crime gang conducted mostly on Skype.
According to public prosecutor Tim Van hoogenbemt, Skype only complied with part of the request. In other words, it only handed over metadata: e-mail addresses, user histories, account details and IP addresses. But when it came to the content of conversations, Skype said it was “technically impossible” to listen in, the prosecutor said.
Belgian law stipulates that telecoms have to hand over certain calls to investigators at the court’s behest. Skype knows that full well, Van hoogenbemt said. His office emphasized that the calls took place in Belgium, involved Belgian speakers, and that of course Belgian laws apply.
Skype offers services in our country, so it has to know the legislation. And therefore also know that the court can request eavesdropping measures. They had to provide the equipment for doing something like that.
Besides the argument that eavesdropping on conversations is technically impossible, Skype claims it’s neither an operator nor a service provider, but only a provider of certain software. According to Reuters, Skype also argued that Luxembourg, where Skype and its servers are based, could block any eavesdropping arrangement set up to monitor Belgium-originated calls.
On Wednesday, the court didn’t buy any of it. The judgement, which came out at a court in the city of Mechelen, in the Belgian province of Antwerp, Flanders, said that Skype was “indisputably” a telecoms operator and that references in Belgian law to “telecommunication” included “electronic communication”.
This certainly isn’t Microsoft’s first skirmish over law enforcement that wants to pry open private communications. The case is reminiscent of Microsoft’s fight with the US over emails stored on servers based in Ireland. At this point, US v. Microsoft is headed to the Supreme Court.
However the Supreme Court rules, it will have massive implications for US-based communications companies that serve countries all over the world.
The Supreme Court will hear the case sometime next year.
As far as Skype’s troubles in Belgium go, Reuters reports that Microsoft isn’t giving in just yet: it’s considering further legal options.
10 comments on “Skype faces fine after refusing to allow eavesdropping”
I think it’s interesting that they would try to make the argument that they are not a telecom company when they offer VOIP services similar to a telecom company. That’s like Ford saying that they don’t make cars.
I think a better analogy would be Ford saying we don’t offer public transportation. When in reality their vehicles may be utilized for public transportation.
I find this to be overly broad on the Belgian courts. The true telecom is the internet service provider. They are a software service. But I am looking at this applying laws from the US on this one.
Michael Marohn, This is because laws referencing telecommunication providers are specifically for companies providing physical transportation services. Under their and you definition, every single company in the world that provides any sort of video, audio or electronic communication would be classified as a telecom. Which means every single company that does business on the internet. This is basically saying that every company would need to provide a means of backdooring a secure encrypted service. I could write a program right now that would allow you to disguise video as text files. And then use google docs to upload text files which would be then downloaded and recompiled into a video communication. This does not mean encrypted google docs is a telecom and needs to comply by telecom laws. The entire definition and point of encryption is so that nobody but you and the receives knows what is in the message for legal and confidentiality purposes. Under the courts very flawed logic, a bank sending data from one point in the US to Belgium would be required to provide the encrypted information for investigative purposes if they built the application used to transport that data in house which is an absurdity.
I don’t remember explaining my definition of communication as “physical transportation services”. I think your argument is that VOIP is not a replacement for a telephone service because that’s the comment that I was making. I know several companies that use Skype for business as their telephone service.
Sorry, Michael, that is a cop out.
Brain M correctly captures the essences of the issue with the Belgian court’s decision. This all turns on the question, what is the limiting principle? When it comes to software and the digital world, decisions like this one in Belgium looks ludicrously arbitrary.
What is probably needed is a new set of laws that truly understand this point and the modern world as it technologically is, rather than try to shoehorn a situation into poorly fitting existing laws in order to effect a specific outcome they desire.
But, designing those new laws take time and is difficult, so, hence, the (il)logical short cut.
BTW, I’m not Brian M, though we share the same initials. 😉
No its not, they provide software. Its not the same. Telecommunications companies provide cable to the home or a satelitte dish to connect to their head end.
All skype does is have a server that routes data and uses their software to create communications. They ARE NOT a telecommunications provider. They are a software provider BY DEFINITION.
I thinks this alone by definition would make them a telecom service “a server that routes data and uses their software to create communications”
Not unlike a phone company, but now it’s a soft phone.
However, the LE doesn’t understand the technology. It’s the same as asking a telecom that only serves POTs lines, to provide tapes of conversations that the customers used their own encryption on – impossible to be done. (like Jackpair and Cellcrypt)
For Skype the telecom is the internet provider for each person in the call so the claim that Skype isn’t a telecom would be the equivalent of Ford claiming it isn’t responsible for the roads.
A better analogy: a law which required transportation companies to provide images of each passenger.
Ford would say, “We are not a transportation company, we sell machines.”