back to article Belgian court fines Skype for failing to intercept criminals' calls in 2012

Belgium has fined Skype €30,000 for failing to comply with a court request to intercept users' communications, something Skype claims was technically impossible at the time of the request. According to Het Belang van Limburg, a Dutch-language newspaper in Belgium, the fine was delivered by the court in Mechelen because Skype …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "It's technically impossible to do what you want, Skype said"

    That's only if your not a member of the five-eyes club.

  2. Slx

    I suppose the simplest solution would be to stop offering the service in the legally incompatible country. There's very little Skype or Microsoft can do to comply with this and the ruling is simply ignoring reality.

    If this is going to be a regular thing, then the only solution would be to conclude that Skype can't operate in Belgium.

    1. You aint sin me, roit

      Skype can't operate in Belgium

      But what does "operate" mean?

      The software could conceivably be banned in Belgium, but I'm not sure how Skype could enforce this (or indeed the Belgium authorities).

      It would be an interesting bunfight if Skype were to turn round and say that as they can't comply with Belgium regulations then Skype products must not be available/used in Belgium... and that they would appreciate the Belgium authorities assisting in this clamp-down on their citizens! An EU government making criminals out of its citizens for using software...

      Then point out that the people the government wanted to spy on weren't "criminals", they were "suspects".

      1. Adrian Tawse

        Re: Skype can't operate in Belgium

        May I respectfully point out that Belgium is a proper noun, the name of a country. Belgian is an adjective qualifying anything pertaining to that country.

        1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

          Re: Skype can't operate in Belgium

          "What's an adjective?"

          (It comes in a tube and you stick things together with it)

      2. Christian Berger Silver badge

        Verry simple

        "The software could conceivably be banned in Belgium, but I'm not sure how Skype could enforce this (or indeed the Belgium authorities)."

        They probably already ask you what country you are in when you register, if that's Belgium they can just not let you register.

    2. Matt Bryant Silver badge

      Re: Six

      "I suppose the simplest solution would be to stop offering the service in the legally incompatible country....." Technically, Skype does not provide a "service" as the non-commercial version of Skype is a peer-to-peer connection. All Skype provides is the software, the "service" is then provided by the ISPs that make up the connection. Since the Skype connection is encrypted, intercepting it at the ISPs is also pretty pointless unless you have access to the encryption keys or a massive amount of processing power to break it. That's no doubt why the terrorists chose it in the first place.

      ".....There's very little Skype or Microsoft can do to comply with this and the ruling is simply ignoring reality...." The interesting bit is whether Skype will appeal or simply take the smaller cost of the fine.

      ".....If this is going to be a regular thing, then the only solution would be to conclude that Skype can't operate in Belgium." Or that this is the Europeans trying to force an American software provider to implement a backdoor into their communication software so conversations can be intercepted and decrypted at will.

  3. TrevorH

    >> but explained that it was impossible in 2012 to provide access to users' conversations

    In 2012. Doesn't say it's _still_ impossible.

    1. Adam 52 Silver badge

      Microsoft now host their own supermodels, so it's possible for them to intercept messages routed through their own infrastructure (and quite possibly force a route that way).

      They didn't have that capability in 2012.

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge
        Paris Hilton

        @Adam52

        I don't think you meant to say "Microsoft now host their own supermodels", but, if you did, tell me more. :-)

    2. VanguardG

      Perhaps it still is, perhaps it isn't, but Microsoft will insist it isn't. And in all truth, can you blame them? If they admit its possible, they'll get subpoenas from national governments, non-government agencies, and demands all the way down to divorce attorneys and private employers who manage to convince a judge to sign the paperwork. Everyone wants to snoop if they get even the smallest advantage from it, and all the better if they can make a third party do the work for them - for free. Meanwhile, if two people are using older clients that don't use the snoopware-enabled "plug in" (or "update") and remains a true peer-to-peer, with no ability for any central point to intercept and copy the data stream for storage/analysis/decoding or other use/abuse, whoever is demanding it will get argumentative about it "You were able to handle this for XYZ, now you claim you can't! Lies! Now give us the data, or else." Who pays Microsoft (in this case) for the time required to comply with the flood of "court orders" they can expect if they admit they can snoop on these conversations?

  4. MiguelC Silver badge

    Confused about who's being fined...

    If there are/were no Skype employees in Belgium, we'd suppose there is/was no Belgian company to fine. Are Belgian courts really fining a foreign entity without a local presence?

    (Now who do they think they are, the US of A?)

  5. Frank Bitterlich
    Facepalm

    Flawed arguments...

    ... on both sides, if you ask me.

    The "We're not a service provider" argument doesn't hold, unless Skype were a pure peer-to-peer service, which it wasn't at any time. So they did provide a service.

    The "offering services in our country" argument is questionable as well. If anybody who does not employ geo-blocking for any internet service or content is considered providing that "in" every country on this planet, then my blog is probably violating the laws of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea right now.

    1. Nattrash
      Mushroom

      Re: Flawed arguments...

      Very true, looks Skype (MS) is talking rubbish here because it suits them. After all, if they are not a service, what have people, who purchased calls to landline and mobile numbers (services?) have been paying for then? I think I can even remember that, if you bought such a credit, you had to register and agree to T&As. I think you also had to pay if you wanted to do group calls? Now, that sounds pretty "servicy"... Unless people were paying money for "not receiving a service". Just as the fact that all those calls run though the Skype servers, and not, as somebody else here said, P2P. I guess these servers also do not serve...

  6. hardboiledphil

    2012 was Pre-Microsoft presumably - before they took all the peer-to-peer goodness and ripped it all out and made it insecure again to the delight of governments everywhere.

    1. Steve Foster

      @hardboiledphil

      One of the arguments for changing the design away from p2p may well have been this court scenario, precisely to avoid similar court cases in future (MS can be surprisingly pragmatic at times).

      1. Sven Coenye

        Re: @hardboiledphil

        The US declared them a service provider under CALEA (wiretap law) in 2006, although the response then was essentially "F.U.". They got away with that, probably because they were a Luxembourg entity at the time. So MS may indeed be working to avoid getting hauled into court, but a Belgian one was probably not what they had in mind...

        (So, the Belgian court may have reasoned Skype had 6 years to provide what was asked for, assuming that if Skype had to offer the capability to the US, it would be able to provide it anywhere. It's only software, after all...)

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    MS could buy Belgium

    That would solve the problem.

    Oh Wait, that would mean that they'd have to pay taxes/dues to the EU. They won't want to do that.

    1. h4rm0ny
      Paris Hilton

      Re: MS could buy Belgium

      Ireland is in the EU, yes?

  8. kryptylomese

    What is Skype?

    ....other than a distant memory of something that people used to use

  9. King Jack
    Facepalm

    It makes sense now

    That is why the spyware is in Windows, to comply with future requests from Belgium.

  10. Charlie van Becelaere
    Pirate

    All this

    as Wallonia flexes her trade muscles (mussels?) and nearly blocks the EU / Canada trade deal.

    The Belgians are on the move, world! Prepare for an upgrade to global beer and chocolate standards!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: All this

      If Belgium had made this clear, the BREXIT vote might have gone the other way !!! :)

      [Lots of very interesting Beers in Belgium & Chocolate ...... although I prefer Swiss Chocolate :) ]

      1. Neoc

        Re: All this

        @AnonymousCoward: "although I prefer Swiss Chocolate :)"

        Hush your mouth - I have Cote D'or chocolates shipped to Australia twice a year in order to get my fix. ^_^

        1. Ben Bonsall

          Re: All this

          Cote d'or is now made by a division of Kraft foods in Poland...

          1. Neoc

            Re: All this

            Well, the Mignonettes are...

  11. Spender
    WTF?

    Makes for an interesting precedent, whereby all companies operating on the internet are liable to follow all laws in all countries.

    It's difficult to see how that might work.

    1. Sven Coenye

      That is pretty much the current situation. And in a number of cases, enforcement is a lot more aggressive. See Turkey v. almost any major online service (Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, ...) or the various spats between France and Google.

    2. P. Lee Silver badge

      That is why we have trade blocks - to harmonise law locally, then transpacific, transamerica and transatlantic treaties to align them to the US.

      One ring to rule them all.

      You don't need conspiracy for this, it's the natural outcome of capitalism without restraint.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Belgium

    Someday, Rule of Law will come to Belgium.

    No soon.

    Just some day.

  13. ma1010 Silver badge
    Trollface

    Enough with the profanity!

    Okay, I can live with f**k and s**t and m********ker and such.

    But c'mon, we have to have SOME standards. Please moderate your language! I mean, using the word Bel***m is just so unhoopy!

  14. tr1ck5t3r

    Want to make free local, national & international phone calls & messages which are probably untraceable even to the spooks? Get yourself some free voip numbers, Sipgate.de works in this example. Download a copy of freeswitch and set it up to record the phone call and have call intercept setup. Set the voip phone software running with call intercept running, and phone the voip number but never answer the call. Instead talk away ignoring the ringing tone the caller is hearing as the phone system will record everything you say, and you can listen in to what the caller is saying using the call intercept. Reverse to have a two way conversation ignoring or filter out the ringing tones. Not only will you not be charged for the call as the call is technically never answered but the way the phone systems works is freeswitch sends the ringing tones back to the call once it has been routed to you.

    Et Voila free probably untraceable (at least no billing logs will exist) telephone messaging.

  15. Matt Bryant Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Belgians trying to deny facts.

    The Belgians seem determined to deny that any of the factors that made Belgium a nice hideyhole for Islamist terrorists were due to the incredibly poor Belgian security apparatus.

    1. P. Lee Silver badge

      Re: Belgians trying to deny facts.

      Security is hard and expensive and repressive - more so if everyone is operating in a peer to peer fashion and you are not allowed perimeter controls.

      Besides, terrorism is such a tiny threat it's hardly worth worrying about. In case anyone has forgotten the meaning of the word, it works by harnessing an ill-considered response generated by fear.

  16. kbuggenhout

    its so shortsighted of the courts, they better just outright ban all communication, and make it illegal to use any form of software telephony, messaging, encryption, why not ban all electronic devices then, while your at it shut down all power plants, ban electricity, remove all vehicles, close the borders,... wait, some people might love that...but really?... as if that is going to happen.

    and indeed in 2012 skype was not yet owned by microsoft, it was employing p2p ( one of the reasons it didnt work for confcalls with multiple parties). for that reason it is technically impossible to deliver anything more than the meta data of the call.

    we will have to go back to writing texts with hidden messages like during WW2

    hmmm we already do that... wickr, whatsapp, facetime... any voip soft, people running asterisk at home... guess what.. you cant trace those calls... and if you can, you need years of compute time to get to the message.

  17. lukewarmdog

    Is a Skype call transcript admissible evidence? To avoid the admittedly piddly fine Skype could just make something up as there's no other record of the conversation. I find myself agreeing with Skype here, some people in Belgium used their software to have a conversation, they can't carry liability for the download and use of that software. Belgium should block it from working if theyre unhappy with it.

  18. Neoc

    "Skype refuted this claim, however, arguing that the legislation cited did not apply to it as it was a software provider, rather than a service provider."

    I call bullshit - when I set up Skype a few years ago (after MS bought it out) it proved impossible to set it up without signing up to an MS account. And if I have to sign up with a central authority, it's a service.

    1. Mark M.

      @Neoc, At the time of the original court order, Skype was still independent - All it was was a peer2peer software. Skype central servers were nothing more than directory listings enabling users to locate other Skype users and what their current IP address is when they logged in online and maybe some feedback metadata for software operation performance. Even back then, you needed to register with a valid email account and was something quick for MS to force MS accounts only onto new users after they bought it. The Skype client back then could still only physically connect the call to another PC running a Skype client that was logged into. There was nothing for Skype to intercept, unless it baked in spyware that sent a digital recording of the call to a central server somewhere.

      After 2012, when MS bought it up, they ripped the guts out of it then centralised all the comms routing so they could mismanage it. Now, Skype/MS could comply with the order and intercept a call, but they don't have a time-machine to send the new post-2012 Skype infrastructure back to the time of the conversation in question and then capture/decode it for the Belgians.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Guilty

    If they pay the fine they admit being guilty......This would be cited later in further cases.

  20. Jess

    I think I am on the side of MS

    However, most of what they said was BS.

    But failing to comply with an impossible court order is ridiculous.

    If Belgium were however to charge them with providing a service incompatible with Belgian law, then that would be a different question. And if they accepted any payments from the country for services, then they would have little defence.

  21. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    Wow, is this possibly a correct use of "refute"?

  22. Christian Berger Silver badge

    What a cheap way of doing marketing

    Of course they could technically comply. After all they control the client (with updates and possibly hidden extra features), so they can instruct it to either give them the key or even the complete conversation. There is no incentive for Skype not to have that feature. (appart from the few hours of work that feature would require)

    Of course they need to claim that they have no control over their clients. Paying 30k€ is a low price for all the positive publicity they get in the newspapers.

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