PARIS, March 10 – A French anti-piracy bill that would punish Internet users who illegally download music, films or video games by cutting off their web access, faces a tough parliamentary battle this week.,
Record and film industry executives back President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government over the bill, saying the crackdown will help protect the creative industries whose sales have been slashed by online piracy.
Under a "three-strikes" system, illegal downloaders would be sent two warnings, by e-mail then registered letter, after which they would lose their Internet connection for up to a year if they are caught again.
The bill would create a new state agency to track and punish suspected offenders, acting on tip-offs from music and film companies and with the help of Internet service providers (ISPs).
"Internet piracy is a scourge that is killing off France’s creative industries," the ruling UMP party’s leader in parliament, Jean-Francois Cope, argued in defence of the bill, which aims to slash online piracy by 80 percent.
But the bill faces a stormy battle when it goes before the lower-house National Assembly from Wednesday, with Socialist lawmakers denouncing the new "surveillance" measures as "an assault on public and individual liberties."
Suspected offenders, the Socialists complain, would be cut off before having a fair chance to challenge the accusations.
Opponents warn the bill could unfairly punish businesses or families if the downloading is done by an employee or a child.
Others have attacked the suggestion that universities, libraries or cafes with Wi-Fi Internet points could block access to downloading websites, saying it amounts to censorship.
Consumer group UFC-Que Choisir has dubbed the bill a "monstrosity", while dozens of French websites have launched a "black-out" operation in protest.
Violation of copyright laws through illegal downloading is punishable in France by a fine of up to 300,000 euros and three years in jail, but only a handful of cases have been taken to court.
French web users continue to download massively, accessing one billion pirated music albums, films, books and computer games in 2006 alone.
More than one in three French Internet users admit to having made illegal downloads, according to a TNS Sofres poll, with the figure soaring to 57 percent among 18 to 24 year olds.
France’s culture ministry expects the new High authority for copyright protection and dissemination of works on the Internet (Hadopi) to send out up to 10,000 warnings a day.
Ultimately, it expects up to 1,000 people a day could face access bans.
France’s record, film and television industries worked with the government to draft the anti-piracy bill in late 2007, and have pledged to improve their online offer in exchange for the state crackdown.
They have promised to make films more quickly available as legal downloads, and to phase out so-called DRM copyright protection software that stops digital music from being played across different devices.
But technology-watchers warn the French bill is already out-of-date by targeting file-sharing or download sites, since piracy is increasingly shifting towards easy-to-use video "streaming" websites.
Others argue that the Internet has definitively changed the younger generation’s attitudes towards paying for music and film.
Instead of fighting the tide, they say the creative industries need to find new business models that play to the Internet’s strengths, pointing at the success of free, legal music streaming sites such as Deezer.com.
The French proposals will also carry a technical cost for Internet service providers, estimated at up to 30 million euros per year.
But the government cites the experience of the United States, where up to 90 percent of web users stopped illegal downloading after receiving a warning letter, as proof that a tough approach to piracy is effective.
So far the United States, Ireland and Italy are the only countries that go as far as cutting off illegal downloaders.
Plans for a similar law in New Zealand were derailed last month after dozens of websites and blogs were "blacked out" in protest.
Several European countries including Britain, Germany and Sweden have decided against cut-off measures, and a European Union report last year argued that banning Internet users was the wrong way to combat piracy.