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French 'Three Strikes' Antipiracy Law Passes Second Reading

French Internet users who share music or videos without permission from the copyright holders are one step closer to losing their Internet access, after the French National Assembly gave its assent to the so-called Hadopi law on Thursday night. The law had its first reading in the Senate last year.

Under the new law copyright holders will have the right to monitor file-sharing networks and report people they suspect of piracy to a new regulatory body, the High Authority for the Distribution of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet, known in French as the Hadopi.

The authority will send an electronic message to those accused of distributing copyright works without permission, warning them not to do it again -- without identifying the works they are accused of sharing or copying. Repeat offenders may have their Internet access suspended for up to three months and, if they do it again, for up to a year. In each case, their name will be added to a blacklist preventing them from signing up with a different ISP for the duration of the suspension. ISPs will have 15 days to put such suspensions into effect, or risk a fine of €5,000 (US$7,500).

Civil liberties and free software groups were quick to react.

Although a number of deputies, including some UMP members, sought to amend the bill, "None of the technical aberrations, economic nuisances or serious attacks on our rights were removed, even though they were all exposed in detail," Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesman for La Quadrature du Net, wrote in an e-mail.

Among the few concessions made to the opposing deputies, Internet users who have their Internet access suspended by the Hadopi will no longer have to continue to pay their ISP while the suspension is in force. Another means that copyright holders who live in tax havens will not be able to invoke the law.

Open wireless connections or lawless house guests might get Internet subscribers into trouble for the actions of others, but the law will exempt anyone who agrees to install a government-approved filter on their computers.

However, the law makes no provision for interoperability with operating systems such as Linux, or the use of free and open-source filtering software for this purpose: it is an attack on free software, said April, an association for the promotion and defense of free software.

While it currently has a strong free software industry, "France is making a mockery of itself in sabotaging one of its greatest competitive advantages," April spokesman Frédéric Couchet wrote in an e-mail.

Those opposing the French law also warn that it could threaten net neutrality, with ISPs perhaps being forced to filter Internet traffic. Article 5 allows courts to impose any measure necessary, technical or otherwise, to end or prevent breaches of copyright by Internet users. Amendments aiming to limit those measures to those proportionate to the offense, or to put the responsibility on those publishing or hosting the content before the ISP, were defeated.

Just 33 of the National Assembly's 577 deputies attended the evening debate; 29 of those present voted in favor and four abstained. Although the bill was strongly contested, including by some members of the ruling party, the UMP, the government's majority ensured it would pass, perhaps explaining the low turnout.

Hadopi still has some way to go before it enters effect. A joint commission composed of government-nominated members of the Senate and National Assembly must first reconcile differences between the texts voted by the two parliamentary chambers. Before the President signs the text into law, senators and deputies will have the opportunity to challenge its validity by referring it to the Constitutional Council.

The law's opponents may get some help from lawmakers in Brussels: The Hadopi law puts the French government in conflict with the European Parliament, which last month declared the right to Internet access as vital for education, and amended a draft telecommunications law to ensure that only the judiciary has the authority to suspend someone's Internet access. The versions of that law supported by the Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Governments must now be reconciled, and the French government is pushing for the text to be changed to allow "any competent legal authority" to order the suspension of Internet access.

The New Zealand government last month withdrew its "three strikes" antipiracy law in response to widespread criticism, but still plans to introduce a revised version.

In Sweden, a similar antipiracy law came into force on April 1, allowing owners of copyright works to apply for a court order to identify anonymous Internet users found sharing those works without permission. The day after the law took effect, Swedish Internet traffic dropped by between 30 percent and 50 percent, after reaching a climax on the day before the law came in.

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