France Passes Tough Internet Piracy Bill

The French lower house has narrowly approved some of the toughest anti-internet-piracy legislation in the world, a bill that would permit authorities to cut the internet connection of illegal downloaders, impose fines of hundreds of thousands of euros and even jail repeat offenders.

The Hadopi bill, named for the new anti-piracy agency it creates, was backed on Tuesday (15 September) by most members of the governing centre-right UMP group in the National Assembly and resisted by the opposition Socialists, 285 to 225.

This is the third attempt of the French government to pass such a law. The first attempt tripped at the final hurdle when insufficient numbers of deputies from the majority turned up to vote, requiring a resubmission of the bill, which was subsequently struck down by France's Constitutional Court, which ruled that only a judge could impose such penalties as cutting internet access.

The new bill, already approved by the Senate in July, is also known as the 'three-strikes law' for its graduated response to internet piracy: first a suspected downloader is sent a warning email, then a letter in the post and finally would see their connection cut for up to a year if they persist in downloading content without the permission of the copyright owner.

A scofflaw could even face fines of up to €300,000 and up to two years in jail.

Families whose children download illegally are not exempt from the law, but face reduced penalties – a month of no internet access and fines of €3,750.

In a blow to hopes for the spread of ubiquitous wi-fi access, the bill also requires that wi-fi users block non-authorised users from accessing their connection.

To overcome the objections of the Constitutional Court, a judge will now be required for the imposition of penalties.

French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand cheered the bill's passage: "Artists will remember that we at last had the courage to break with the laissez-faire approach and protect their rights from people who want to turn the net into their libertarian utopia."

A commission of seven senators and seven lower chamber deputies must now combine the two houses' versions of the law into a single bill over the coming days.

Internet freedom advocates, noting that President Nicholas Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, is a top-selling singer, have slammed the bill as draconian and a sop to the record and movie industries.

Other European countries however have watched the bill's evolution closely, hoping to develop similar legislation. Sweden already has a comparable legal framework and has seen a massive drop in internet piracy.

The European Parliament however has taken a strong stance against such legislation, arguing that cutting people's internet off now is akin to cutting off someone's electricity or water – essentially that internet access is a fundamental right.

The Greens in EU parliament, who welcomed Sweden's sole elected Pirate Party MEP – who campaigns against such internet restrictions – into their political family in the chamber after the June European elections, were quick to denounce the French law.

"We remain opposed to the 'Hadopi' law, even in its modified form, because it still fails to provide for a fair trial and goes against the principle of presuming innocence," said Green co-leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

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