France threatens to fine ‘illegal’ Skype

Is Skype a telephone service or a computer application? Skype owner Microsoft says it’s the latter, the French telecoms authority insists its the former and is threatening court action to force Skype to register as a telephone operator.

Allo Skype ? Ici l’Arcep ! Is Skype a telephone or a software application — thereon hangs a long tale

The argument has been raging on and off  for five years and now Arcep-Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes, the French telecoms regulator, has warned the US-based software giant  Microsoft that it faces a 75,000 euro fine and a year in jail unless it buckles down. Arcep says Microsoft has repeatedly ignored requests  to register its VoIP service as a telecommunications operator and thus comply with French law.

Other suggest that doing so would entail allowing French law enforcement officials to tap Skype, oblige the company to subsidise the fixed line network and the cost of the phone book and force it to route emergency calls through its  service.

It may also have tax implications. ARCEP spokesman Jean Francois Hernandez told reporters: “When you act as a French operator you have to register as an operator” adding that once Skype does register, it would  be required  to file tax declarations in France (something its current Microsoft offices in France are likely to be doing anyway).

As French News Online first reported here the story goes back to a time before Skype was acquired by Microsoft. When the regulator was last hot on its tail (in 2007) Skype hastened to close down its French office apparently hoping that an embryo EU body designed to regulate for all EU member states, would effectively inhibit further national investigations.

But Emmanuel Paquette, a technology writer with l’Express insists, as he has before,that as far as the French Telecom gendarmes are concerned, Skype is operating illegally in France.  On his latest blog he says:

“Announcing his decision to call on the state prosecution service to act, Jean-Ludovic Silicani, ARCEP chairman said: ‘Skype must comply in three respects: it must allow interception of calls for safety reasons (wiretapping), it must  route emergency calls via its service and it must introduce portability for its phone numbers (SkypeIn).  If Microsoft refuses, we have no choice but formally to notify them of action,’ he said.

“ARCEP earlier called in the state prosecutor in 2007 on exactly the same grounds but the process  was dropped after Skype  closed all its European offices. The acquisition of the company by Microsoft for $ 8.6 billion, completed in October 2011, has reopened the process because Microsoft  has a research center and its European headquarters for  the West and Middle East in France. The company is aware of the problem which was mentioned in its latest quarterly report. ‘Our products (…) like Skype, are subject to the rules in some jurisdictions, whether in the areas of privacy, telecommunications, data protection and online content.’

“As an operator, Skype would also be required  to finance the universal telephone service, which provides connection to a fixed network at  affordable prices, the printing and distributing of a telephone  directory, installation and maintenance of public payphones . This  is financed by contributions from all telecommunications operators, but  Skype currently does not participate.”

With 167 billion minutes of Skype conversation worldwide in 2012, standby for plenty of angry reaction in France to any efforts at curbing VoiP in the country.
“You may now kiss the screen”: For an interesting review on the use of Skype in proxy marriages, the status of such marriages in France and the US and legal issues involved, head over to the Franco-American Flophouse blog.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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