French lawmakers pass disputed Internet piracy bill

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s lower house of parliament approved on Tuesday a contested bill that will let authorities track illegal downloading over the Internet and disconnect repeat offenders.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at a meeting with members of the medical staff as he presents his reform of the French hospital system in Nancy, eastern France, May 12, 2009. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The vote represented a success for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who championed the groundbreaking law, and embarrassed the opposition Socialists who antagonised many of their traditional supporters in the arts world by fighting the move.

Sarkozy’s wife, model-turned-singer Carla Bruni, is believed to have pushed the legislation, which is aimed at protecting the revenues of record and film companies and recording artists.

A first bid to pass the reform failed last month when too few lawmakers from Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party showed up in the national assembly, enabling the opposition to hijack the vote and inflict a rare defeat on the ruling majority.

There was no such upset in Tuesday’s re-vote, when the bill was passed by 296 votes to 233.

The bill is expected to receive final approval in the upper house Senate on Wednesday but its introduction onto the statute books is likely to be delayed by at least a month, with opponents promising to challenge the law in France’s top court.

Under the terms of the bill, Internet pirates will receive two warnings before having their connection cut after a third offence for a period of up to one year. During that time they will have to continue paying their Internet provider.

Opponents have criticised this double punishment and say access to the Internet should be a fundamental right.

Consumer groups also fear intrusive monitoring of online activities and warn that innocent users may be unfairly punished if hackers use their accounts to download files.

“This is an inefficient, outdated and unworkable law,” said Socialist parliamentarian Patrick Bloche.

However, the music industry, which wants governments and Internet providers to crack down on illegal downloading of copyrighted work, has cheered France’s efforts.

And some artists normally linked to the left, such as singer Juliette Greco, have also openly applauded the initiative.

Record companies and consumer groups have long been at loggerheads over Internet piracy and the rights of users.

Entertainment companies, which have seen their revenues hammered by rampant piracy, have had some success with their campaign for tougher measures. In January, Irish Internet provider Eircom agreed to disconnect users who download files illegally in a settlement with four major record companies.

Editing by Crispian Balmer and Jon Boyle