The criminal court in Mechelen, Belgium, will determine whether Voice over IP (VoIP) service Skype is a telecom operator, said court spokesman Theo Byl on Tuesday. The company was ordered to appear in court on June 10.
The case started about three years ago when an examining magistrate in Mechelen ordered Skype to give law enforcement officials access to data from Skype-to-Skype calls between two suspected Armenian criminals. Both of them were in Belgium when making the calls.
Under Belgian law, telecom operators are obliged to give law enforcement officials access to call data if ordered to do so by a judge. Refusing to do so is a criminal offense, said Byl, who added that Skype did not respond to the order by the Mechelen magistrate.
Both the examining magistrate and the public prosecutor's office consider Skype to be a telecom operator under Belgian law. That's why the public prosecutor's office summoned Skype to appear before the criminal court, said Byl, adding that the company could be ordered to hand over the data and could also face a fine.
Meanwhile, Skype issued a statement saying that law enforcement plays an important role in keeping communities safe, but that the legal process should also protect personal privacy. Skype didn't say whether it plans to comply with this court order, nor did it comment about the case specifically nor about what its defense strategy might be.
Law enforcement officials throughout Europe can relatively easily obtain a court order to access data related to calls over land lines and mobile phones. Such orders for Internet services have been more elusive, however. Laws are not clear on whether electronic communications services are subject to the same wire-tapping and data access rules that cover traditional telecom providers.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org