The French agency Hadopi may eventually cut users' connection to the Internet as punishment. Meanwhile, French Internet advocacy groups say that there are alternatives to this litigious scheme.
French fines could reach 1,500 euros after warnings
Within the last few weeks, Hadopi, the new French government agency charged with combating online piracy, has begun sending out thousands of warning e-mails on a daily basis to illegal file sharers around the country.
The controversial law works on a three-strike system. After two warning letters, the Hadopi agency then refers each case to a judge who can fine the offender up to 1,500 euros ($2,100) and order the user's Internet connection to be cut for up to a month. The agency initially identifies possible copyright infringements via an industry-funded private company that monitors Internet traffic and activity.
The French music industry says that 700 million euros are lost to piracy every year
Legal battles brewing
At least one person is already seeking legal advice after receiving an email, according to Renaud Veeckman, co-founder of SOS Hadopi, a group set up to defend people against the new law.
Other Internet freedom groups say the legislation is a dangerous step towards online censorship, and that trying to stop people sharing is hopeless task. Hadopi's proponents say the aim is to change ordinary people's attitude to file-sharing.
"Pirates are not our target," says David El Sayegh, the director general of France's biggest music trade organisation, SNEP. "Our target is the mainstream user who used to download illegally because it was more convenient for him. The majority understand there are new legal offers."
In France, there are many legal online venues for digital music, like Apple's iTunes, and also, more recently, the French government's new plan to offer a "music card" for 12-25 year-olds to buy digital music subsidized by the government.
Despite those offerings, the SCPP, a French trade association that represents companies including Vivendi SA's Universal Music Group, Sony Music France and Warner Music France have said that Internet piracy costs the French music industry 700 million euros ($978 million) per year.
Online activists propose alternative
Still, even Hadopi's critics agree that artists need to be paid for their work.
"Sharing is a benefit for most artists," said Maxime Rouget, a spokesperson from the French Pirate Party. "Discovering an artist should not be illegal. We suggest, for example, global licence IDs where every citizen who wants to support artists can give a small amount of money each month."
There are legal digital music alternatives, such as Apple's iTunes service
It's not a battle between file-sharers who believe in the goodness of people versus authorities. Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, another French Internet advocacy group, believes the problem requires an economic rather than a legal solution.
"The Internet must be seen as one big copy machine," he says. "The business model to fund creation based on selling copies is outdated. When an industry brings on the market a service with an added value people buy it."
He adds that more people will create virtual private networks and encrypt content, making it harder for police to find more serious criminals.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spearheaded the Hadopi law and agency
Other countries remain interested
Foreign governments are watching France's progress with interest, and a certain ambivalence.
A conference on the Internet and freedom of expression due to be co-hosted by France and the Netherlands was postponed last week after two documents were leaked.
One was a letter from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner saying he relied on him to promote France's pedagogical approach - the language often used to describe Hadopi.
The other was a draft of a resolution that included references to online policing and was due to be put before delegates. Dutch Internet users have pressured their government not to sign it, though the postponement was attributed to an agenda clash.
Hadopi's critics also maintain that the law is part of a larger plan to surveil the Internet. Another related law, Loppsi, is designed to catch terrorists and pedophiles, using more invasive online surveillance methods.
"We can see what will be the next step," added Rouget. "Of course the aim is to extend the scope of the law. First it will be child pornography, then terrorism, then copyrighted materials."
But Eric Walter, Hadopi’s secretary general, added that the agency won't go that far, and noted that Hadopi is still in the early stages.
"That is a fear not a fact," he said. "We have the obligation to make an evaluation of all the possibilities to protect content. We're just at the beginning of this work."
Author: Molly Guinness
Editor: Cyrus Farivar