The National Consumer Council (NCC) is adding its weight to a major European campaign championing consumer rights in the digital age.

The music industry as well as online music services are all under criticism from European consumer representatives, who are angry at the criminalisation of consumers and lack of interoperability between existing services and devices.

The way songs are protected using Apple's FairPlay digital rights management (DRM) system and Microsoft's DRM is a case in point.

No criminalisation

Launching the campaign, consumer groups are hosting a press conference at the European Parliament today. They want to draw attention to the way consumers "are treated as criminals and pirates for person-to-person file sharing and downloads".
The campaign includes a declaration of what consumer bodies feel should be consumers' digital rights. These include: the right to choice, knowledge and cultural diversity; the right to the principle of technical neutrality; consumer rights in the digital environment; the right to benefit from technological innovations without abusive restrictions; the right to interoperability of content and devices; the right to the protection of privacy; the right not to be criminalised.

Consumer's digital rights must be defined

The bodies are also demanding an end to legal action against P2P downloaders in order to allow the market to find solutions to the problem, and to ensure that adequate protections for consumer privacy and rights in a DRM environment are defined.

Sony BMG's recent debacle in which it installed hard-to-find spyware on CD user's PCs without their knowledge in the name of privacy protection stands as a case in point.

"The industry insists on informing, or rather misinforming consumers on what they cannot do in the digital world. We believe it is high time to guarantee consumers certain basic rights in the digital world and to tell them what they can do with their digital hardware and content," said Jim Murray, BEUC director. (BEUC is an umbrella body for Europe's consumer rights organisations.

Consumer organisations have also published two pan-European surveys on cultural diversity online and on interoperability between online music stores.

They declare lack of interoperability between devices and services to be potentially damaging to the free market: "If your portable player only supports the file format of a given music store, you cannot choose the best offer. Yet another format might offer a better price or give you wider possibilities for using the music file," one survey explains.

It would be technically feasible to produce a player that is compatible with all music file formats, but industry is preventing this from happening, they complain.

Cultural diversity a requirement, not a choice

They also demand that online services offer more focus on ensuring adequate representation of local content across markets, arguing that cultural diversity is enshrined under EU law.

"Online music business models are designed in a way that restricts rather than promotes cultural diversity. In the area of digital content, much remains to be done: more content needs to be made available," Europe's consumer groups agree.

Labels unlikely to agree

However, UK music body the BPI last month rejected some of the substance of the NCC's observation that it is trying to criminalise consumers.

BPI chairman Peter Jamieson said: "The NCC's comments are misleading. First, the BPI has not initiated any criminal actions. Any actions we have initiated have been civil cases. Second, we are not taking action against consumers. We are pursuing people who are taking music without permission and infringing the rights we have under the law.
"We make no apologies for enforcing the rights we have been given in law. But we have focused our attentions on some of the worst offenders - those people making available hundreds and often thousands of tracks available for others to download," he said.