France approves broadside to digital pirates

France will send out the first warnings to digital pirates early next year after passing tough legislation allowing for Internet access to be cut for those who illegally download movies and music, a minister said.

The Constitutional Court passed the law on Thursday to the joy of President Nicolas Sarkozy and anger of Internet libertarians in France and other countries which are considering copying the French example.

Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said the members of a watchdog to oversee application of the digital clampdown would be named in November and the first warnings would go out "from the start of 2010."

The law sets up an agency that will send out an email warning to people found to be illegally downloading films or music.

A written warning is sent if a second offence is registered in six months and after a third, a judge will be able to order a one-year Internet rights suspension or a fine.

Mitterrand called the law an "innovative and educational mechanism to prevent piracy".

Sarkozy said: "France now has a very innovative system to protect the rights of authors, artists and their partners in the Internet universe."

But in a reference to complaints about the restrictions, the French president added that all sides had to work to make sure "there is a civilised Internet."

France's Society of Drama Authors and Composers (SACD) welcomed the new digital protection and said that the government should now consider making search engines pay towards "the financing of creation."

But opponents say it will not prevent illegal file-sharing and that cutting Internet access is unfair because of the commercial and now political importance of having the Worldwide Web.

Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog, said the law was "a serious blow to freedom of expression on the Internet."

It said access to the Internet was a "fundamental right at the basis of our democracy: the right of access to information. They will have to be extremely vigilant in the way this law is applied," the group said in a statement.

La Quadrature Du Net, a group that had campaigned against the law, called it "legally and technically absurd".

The Socialist Party had refered the law to the Constitutional Court but the left was also divided with many artists traditionally following the party but also supporting the right wing government's move.

The court had blocked the law once but this time only rejected an article which allowed for damages to be claimed from digital pirates.

Britain is considering a similar law to France and the European Commission said on Thursday that it was now looking at Europe-wide regulation for trans-national Internet trade.

In a study released Thursday, it raised the possibility of copyright legislation to work alongside national laws and also talks of "alternative forms of remuneration" for authors such as a tax on Internet access.

It estimates that the cultural and creative market has an annual turnover of more than 650 billion euros and employs about three percent of the EU's working population.

Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for the information society and media, said it would be a "priority" to put in place a legal framework to boost digital trade within the internal frontiers while "guaranteeing" the protection of authors rights and offering a "just remuneration" for creators.

burs/cd/tw/sas

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