French Web Sites Protest Stiff Piracy Law

As France's National Assembly considers a law that would cut off access to the internet to those who are found to be repeatedly downloading copyrighted material without permission, "tens of thousands" of websites across the country and beyond have gone dark in a 'black-out' protest against the measures.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the French parliament debated the "creation and internet" law that introduces the three strikes or so-called graduated response against illegal downloading.

Under the legislation those accused of such activities are first sent an email warning them of their infraction by a new government agency. They are subsequently sent a warning letter in the post.

If after this second warning they continue to illegally download copyrighted content, the internet service provider will cut off access to the internet for a year.

The legislation has already passed in the Senate, with a massive cross-party majority of 297 votes to 15. Only a handful of conservatives, centrists and socialists voted against, while the Communists abstained.

However, in the lower house, the bill is facing stiffer resistance as 'internautes', as websurfers are known in France, mobilise against the law.

La Quadrature du Net (Squaring the Net), a French internet civil liberties pressure group backed by the Open Society Institute and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has successfully organised a 'Black-out' protest, in which web designers, bloggers and others on the internet darken their web pages in protest at the bill.

The group says it is difficult to put a precise figure on the number of blacked-out sites, but say the number of unique domains joining the protest has reached over 12,000 and the number of URLs (web addresses) is at over 500,000. "To be safe, we are just saying 'tens of thousands," Jeremie Zimmerman, a spokesperson with La Quadrature du Net, told EUobserver.

Facebook profiles are also being blacked out, and, in the first such protest of its kind in France, users of Twitter, the increasingly popular micro-blogging service, are blacking out their avatars as well

According to Mr. Zimmerman, an entire 'island' in Second Life, the virtual online world, is to go black on Saturday.

"The law is based on the surveillance of internet users by a public body but employing so-called proof of illegal activities supplied by private actors—such as collecting societies and the music companies—over which, unlike the police who would normally be the actors who monitor for illegal activities—we have no democratic control," he said.

"It will also use harvested IP addresses as proof—which is so imprecise that it is certain that there will be innocents that will be caught up in its net," he added.

"And finally, there is no recourse against this until after your internet access is cut off," he said. "It's a kafkaesque legal procedure."

Many French citizens at the same time have backed the bill. Led by top pop stars such as Johnny Hallyday, some 12,000 people have signed a petition defending the legislation.

In the French lower house on Thursday (12 March), the bill met with stiff resistance from the opposition Socialists, who complain that it is unfair to cut off an entire family from the internet due to such a minor infraction, adding that the internet is now a vital communication tool for a range of public services.

Mr. Zimmerman described the Socialists' actions as "legislative guerilla war".

Socialist deputies failed in a series of attempts to introduce amendments that would defang the legislation, including one that replicated an amendment passed by the European Parliament to the EU's telecoms package last September that would outlaw internet cut-offs.

The EU telecoms amendment was subsequently defended by information society commissioner Viviane Reding in October after French President Nicholas Sarkozy sent European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso a letter requesting he work to overturn the parliament's decision.

But the French bill has also come in for criticism from a number of deputies from the ruling UMP, meaning passage of the bill remains far from certain.

Lower house deputies were expected to hold an extended sitting into the middle of the night to debate the bill, but discussion was likely be suspended and only resumed at some point at the end of the month or the beginning of April.

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