Updated: Sept. 25, 2012 (Initial publication: May 17, 2010)

Sectorial Analysis

II-2.2: The First Civil Chamber of the ‘Cour de cassation’ (French Court of Cassation) affirms in a December 19, 2009 decision that an Internet Service Provider’s obligation to provide services to its subscribers is a strict liability to perform (‘res ipsa loquitur’)

by Marie-Anne Frison-Roche

http://www.thejournalofregulation.com/spip.php?article240

FRENCH

Rapport thématique (Télécommunications, Internet) : La première Chambre Civile de la Cour de cassation française, par une décision du 19 novembre 2009, affirme que l'obligation du fournisseur d'accès d'offrir les services à l'abonné est une obligation de résultat.

Dans un contrat entre un usager et le fournisseur d’accès Free, une clause avait prévu l’accès au service audiovisuel, sous réserve de l’éligibilité de sa ligne téléphonique à un tel service. La Cour de cassation estime qu’en dehors d’un cas de force majeure, une telle clause ne peut dispenser le fournisseur d’offrir un tel accès car il s’agit pour lui d’une obligation de résultat. Cette solution, originale en droit traditionnel des contrats illustre le rôle central que la notion d’accès, et de droit d’accès, joue en matière de régulation
 

 

GERMAN

Thematischer Bericht (Telekommunikation, Internet): Die erste Zivilkammer der Cour de Cassation (Französischer Kassationshof) hat in einer Entscheidung vom 19. Dezember 2009 behauptet, dass der Internetdienstanbieter dazu verpflichtet ist, seine Kunden Dienste zur Verfügung zu stellen. Dieses gilt als Pflicht.


Ein Vertrag zwischen Free (ein französischer Internetdienstanbieter) und einer seinen Kunden enthielte einer Klausel, die behauptete, dass der Zugang zum Fernsehdienst der Kundenslinie unterworfen war. Der Gerichtshof hat dieser Klausel als ungültig erklärt.
 

 

SPANISH

La Primera Cámara Civil de la “Cour de Cassation” (la corte francés de casación) afirma una decisión el 19 de diciembre del 2009 que dicta que la obligación de un proveedor de servicio de Internet de proveer servicios a sus clientes es una responsabilidad objetiva.


Un contrato entre Free (un proveedor francés de servicios de Internet) y uno de sus abonados contenía una clausula que estipulaba que el acceso a servicios audiovisuales dependía sobre la elegibilidad de la línea telefónica para estos servicios. La Corte de casación que excepto en casos de “force majeur” (fuerzas mayores) dicha clausula no excluye los proveedores de servicios de su responsabilidad objetiva de proveer dichos servicios.
 

www.legifrance.gouv.fr

Context and Summary

In this case, a consumer subscribed to DSL Internet service with service provider Free, a technology that allows the use of Internet, telephone, and television services. However, the subscription contract stipulated that access to all of these services was only possible if the subscriber was located in a “zone open to telecommunications competition and under the condition that his telephone line was eligible and corresponded to the minimum technical requirements”.

It was later revealed that these services could not be provided to the subscriber because his telephone line did not meet the necessary technical requirements. The consumer therefore turned to a judge, suing Free for damages on the grounds of non-execution of its contractual obligations.

The first judge to try the suit rejected it, stating that “the Free corporation has no control over the equipments and installations,…necessary to access television services, which belong to the France Telecom corporation; whereas the cause of non-execution is a technical matter due to a third-party, it cannot be imputed to Free’s behaviour.”

This judgement was quashed by the Première Chambre Civile de la Cour de Cassation (First Civil Chamber of the Court of Cassation) on the grounds that Internet Service Providers are “held to a strict liability to perform (res ipsa loquitur) as to the services provided,” and that “the technical failure, albeit due to a third-party, did not represent an exemption from this strict liability to perform”.  

Brief commentary

This judicial decision sheds light on the still-shadowy relationship between regulatory law and contract law. First of all, one might have though that, according to French common law, the obliged party was held to a best effort undertaking, that Free did not commit a fault since it has no power over the ‘last kilometre’ (or ‘last mile’) and the technical deficiency is due to a third-party (France Telecom). Furthermore, the client was perfectly informed of the condition that his telephone line had to be eligible for such services, especially audiovisual services, in order to benefit from them. Therefore, contract law seems unable to justify the Court’s decision. But, if one looks to regulatory law, we can understand that the key notion is that of access.

Indeed, if we take the very classic pattern of “essential infrastructures” and transportation networks—and Internet and audiovisual networks fall within this category—what is essential is access rights, which are subjective rights granted by the Law, and merely made tangible by contracts that are supervised by regulators via their exercise of their arbitration powers.

In such conditions, except in the case of force majeure, no clause in a subscription contract can exonerate the service provider from his essential obligation of granting access, since this would render the subscriber’s right to access void of any substance. Therefore, this decision shows that when contracts, even when they are not evaluated by regulators but only submitted to review by ordinary judges, are read through the prism of regulation, which greatly influences and reinvigorates the branch of law that is contract law.

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http://www.regulatorylawreview.com/spip?php=article239

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