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Is Skype a telecom operator similar to AT&T or Verizon, or is it a software company that simply permits the transfer of communications over the Internet? That is one question a Belgian court wants answered as it looks to force the Microsoft-owned firm to hand over customer data.

The case in question is an interesting one. On the one hand, the court in Mechelen, north of Brussels, is seeking call and message data to support an ongoing criminal case — something it says all telecom companies operating in the country are legally required to do. On the other hand, Skype has failed to pass on the requested data, which has now led the court to summon Skype to appear, as reported by Reuters.

“The judicial question is whether Skype is also a telecoms operator,” a court spokesman said. If it’s established that Skype is indeed a telecom operator, then the company would have no option but to divulge the data, and it could also be fined.

The saga continues

This question has been raised by telecom companies and regulators for years, and it’s a common gripe whenever newcomers arrive on the scene to “disrupt” an existing industry. We’re seeing the same happen with Uber and taxi firms — Uber frequently argues that it’s not a taxi company and thus shouldn’t be subject to the same laws, but the incumbents disagree.

It’s estimated that telecom companies will lose $386 billion in revenue between 2012 and 2018 to emerging technologies, and there is a growing tide of resentment against the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, and other so-called “over-the-top (OTT)” services. But the tension extends into the broader Internet realm too, with some mobile networks in Europe reportedly considering plans to block online ads by default, forcing companies such as Google to share their revenues to help support the network infrastructure required to enable their respective online offerings.

Regardless of any technological distinctions between how Skype and, say, Deutsche Telekom or France Télécom operate, the very fact that they serve nearly identical functions could be enough to bring parity to the legislative framework. It could also mean that Skype would be required to offer emergency calls across the board, something it has only ever offered on a very limited basis.

Back in 2013, it emerged that French regulators were pushing to have Skype investigated over its non-registration as a telecom operator, as required by local law. The case is ongoing, but If Skype were to register as a telecom company, it would then be subject to similar tax obligations and even phone-tapping when requested.

It’s a similar situation elsewhere in Europe, including Belgium. Microsoft doesn’t want Skype classed as a telecom operator, but it seems inevitable that it will eventually have to share that legal burden.

The overarching problem rears its head whenever local legislation can’t keep pace with technology — but change is slowly happening. The European Commission is currently drawing up plans to overhaul rules in Europe by 2016. It’s all part of building a so-called “digital single market,” which includes applying a more equal regulatory canvas to companies that compete in the same space.

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