French regulator says Skype must register as a telco or risk prosecution

Registered operators must provide emergency calling service and lawful intercept capabilities

By , IDG News Service |  Unified Communications, Skype, voip

The French Telecommunications and Posts Regulator, ARCEP, has referred Skype to the Paris public prosecutor, asking it to investigate whether Skype has failed to comply with an obligation to register as a telecommunications operator. Registered operators must provide emergency calling services and allow for lawful interception of communications.

Skype's PC-to-PC voice and video calls over the Internet aren't at issue here, but the French regulator is taking a keen interest in the Skype Out service, which allows users in France (and elsewhere) to use their PC or smartphone to call numbers on the public-switched telephone network in France and other countries. In the regulator's view, that service would appear to be an electronic communications service in the eyes of the law, it said Tuesday.

Providers of such services do not require a license in France, but they must declare themselves to the authorities or risk criminal prosecution, the regulator said. Once registered, operators have other obligations,"which include the routing of emergency calls and implementing the means required to perform legally ordered interceptions," the regulator said.

ARCEP has written to Skype several times asking it to declare itself as an electronic communications operator, starting with a letter on April 17, 2012, the regulator's communications manager Jean-François Hernandez

said via email.

However, Skype refused to register as operator of the Skype Out service, said Hernandez. The company does not figure on the regulator's list of declared operators dated Feb. 1, 2013.

Skype's reluctance to register as an operator in France may be linked with difficulties in meeting the obligation to provide French emergency services with the location of those making emergency calls. The company's warning "Skype is not a replacement for your telephone and can't be used for emergency calling" appears on many pages on its website. While Skype will be able to determine the IP address from which a call is made, it may not always be able to turn that into a precise indication of the caller's location.

The obligation to allow lawful intercept would seem to be less of an obstacle, as the company already states in its privacy policy that "Skype, Skype's local partner, or the operator or company facilitating your communication may provide personal data, communications content and/or traffic data to an appropriate judicial, law enforcement or government authority lawfully requesting such information."

The company did not respond to a request for comment on the regulator's requests or on the technical feasibility of providing emergency calling service.

Faced with Skype's refusal to register, the regulator quizzed Skype and registered French telecommunications operators about the contracts between them allowing the routing of telephone traffic and the provision of the Skype Out service to French residents in order to compile its dossier for the prosecutor, Hernandez said.

The Chairman of ARCEP has informed the Paris public prosecutor of these facts, which could be classified as a criminal offence, the regulator said in a news release.

ARCEP's April 2012 letter to Skype also asked the company about Skype In, a service that provides Skype customers with a regular telephone number in a country of their choice at which they can receive calls, said Hernandez. ARCEP is no longer pursuing registration of Skype In because Skype explained that it is only acting as a sales intermediary for Completel, a company that is registered as a telecommunications operator in France. Another service, Skype To Go, is not of concern because it is not yet sold in France, Hernandez said.

Skype is not the only one to offer PC-to-phone calling services. Others include VoxOx, Goober and Google Voice, which all publish rates for calls to France.

Questioned about the regulator's focus on Skype, Hernandez made no comment on whether VoxOx or Goober would be required to register, but said that Google Voice is not commercialized in France. "The service uses a number in the North American numbering plan, and Google is not supposed to attribute such numbers to French residents," he said.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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