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France gets closer to 'three strikes' downloader web ban

International war on pirates part deux

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The globalisation of internet law continues apace, as French legislators press ahead next week with the "loi Hadopi". The purpose of this proposed law is twofold: to clamp down on internet piracy, and to shift the responsibility for this clampdown firmly on to the shoulders of ISPs.

Any similarities between this proposal, and proposals in the UK and US are as coincidental as the state of your current paranoia index. Clearly, legislators are getting together and coming up with a single answer to stop what they perceive as a big threat to intellectual property – or corporate profit.

Independent retailers have not been slow to get in on the act, either. Last week, Virgin anounced its intention to start issuing warning letters to individuals suspected of illegal downloading, though not (yet) to disconnect anyone.

Let’s rewind a little. Last year, incoming French President Nikolas Sarkozy appointed Denis Olivennes, chairman of FNAC, as head of a commission to look into issues affecting downloading – both legal and illegal. If you’ve never heard of FNAC, imagine Virgin, Waterstones and a chunk of Dixons crammed together in one company and trading under a single roof.

Clearly, FNAC has a view when it comes to downloading works from the internet.

An initial report back in November 2007 led to proposals for a “three strikes” policy. Individuals suspected of or caught engaged in illicit downloading from the web would first be sent a warning letter. Then another. Then cut off entirely.

The proposals eventually became the “loi Hadopi”. The title is an acronym, standing for the “Haute autorité pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur l’internet“. That is, the purpose of this law is to put into place an independent administrative body charged with preventing and penalising piracy. If it were set up in the UK, it would probably be called “Ofpirate”.

At this moment, the proposal is generating a lot of froth and not too much illumination. On the one side, French Culture Minister, Christine Albanel has announced that the proposal will be put before the Council of Ministers on 18 June. A fond hope is expressed that, despite heated opinions on each side, the measure can yet be law by the summer.

Backing the proposal are the usual suspects: publishers, retailers and a large chunk of ISPs.

Ranged against them is a more diverse coalition, including consumer advocates, politicians from the Greens and the Socialist Party, as well as new technology magazine SVM. Their online petition against the proposal can be found here.

The outcome remains uncertain – but we will be keeping an eye on the unfolding debate. If this proposal becomes law, it will inevitably mean an increase in the total cost of internet service. French ISPs will be spending time and taxpayers’ money enforcing copyright on their networks. They will be using expensive deep packet inspection (DPI) to monitor traffic on their networks and look for copyrighted content.

Those caught in breach of the law risk being cut off from the internet. The whole clumsy edifice will be overseen by a new regulatory body.

Critics point out that the most likely outcome will be a large number of mostly law-abiding citizens caught up in the Hadopi net – and real pirates continuing to evade the law.

But no matter how daft the proposals may appear, be very afraid. Because once adopted in France, the chances of “me too” legislation springing up elsewhere – including the UK – are very high.

Note: this is the latest version of the Bill, obtained by online newsletter La Quadrature du net (“Squaring the net”). The final published bill is likely to diverge from this. ®

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