France's controversial attempt to crack down on Internet piracy was dealt a setback Wednesday when that country's highest legal authority struck down a provision that would have denied Internet access to those who repeatedly download copyrighted material illegally.
The French Constitutional Council rejected a key provision that would have given a newly created government agency the authority to cut off Internet access to those deemed to be copyright scofflaws after two warnings. The council said "free access to public communication services on line" was a human right that only a judge should have the power to disconnect.
The "three strikes" measure, which was approved in May by the French National Assembly with the support of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would have punished digital pirates by suspending Internet service if they were caught illegally sharing copyrighted material. The legislation would have created a new government agency known as HADOPI (the Haute Autorité pour la Diffusion des Oeuvres et la Protection des droits sur Internet), which would have been tasked with sending notices to illegal file sharers.
Suspected offenders would have received two warnings about their illegal activities and on the third suspected offense, their Internet access would have been disconnected for anywhere from two months to a year. Users would also have been put on a blacklist preventing them from subscribing to another ISP.
Consumer and free speech advocates opposed the legislation, arguing that it would deny accused Internet pirates the right to challenge the government's charges in court. Opponents of the legislation also feared that it would pave the way for governments to violate its citizens' personal privacy rights.
The legislation, considered one of the most aggressive digital antipiracy regulations, proved to be quite controversial in France and throughout the world. As a pre-emptive measure, the European Parliament passed a measure prohibiting EU governments from terminating a user's Internet access without a court order.
The entertainment industry has for years lobbied for more active policing of the Internet, but France is one of the only countries to put together such stringent legislation. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, instead are encouraging partnerships between ISPs and the entertainment industry to fight piracy.
At least one major ISP in the U.S., AT&T, has already agreed to work with the music industry by sending notices to consumers suspected of illegally distributing copyrighted content. And in the U.K., ISPs have agreed to help the entertainment industry fight piracy in lieu of new legislation.