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French web experts pour scorn on anti-piracy plans

Paris — French bloggers and high-tech experts Tuesday scorned plans to punish illegal downloaders by cutting off Internet access, saying the move was unfair, unworkable and would not stop online piracy.

One in three of France’s 30 million web users admit to downloading music, films or video games on the Internet, a recent poll showed, with some 450,000 movie copies a day downloaded in France last year.

Convinced that online piracy is endangering film and music production, the French government has drawn up a bill that would blacklist repeat offenders, suspending their Internet access for up to a year.

Record and film industry bosses and artists’ unions, who blame piracy for a 50-percent collapse in CD sales over five years, worked with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government to draft the bill, which was due to go before parliament Wednesday,

More than 50 French song artists, from Johnny Hallyday to Charles Aznavour, have signed a petition to back the plans and alert public opinion.

Supporters of the bill hope the threat of being cut off will wean web users away from pirated films and music and towards fledgling legal video and music download sites.

But the opposition Socialists have vowed to fight the bill in parliament, calling it "an assault on public and individual liberties," and the plans drew a fresh volley of attacks on Tuesday.

France’s consumer rights group UFC-Que Choisir, attacked the bill Tuesday as a "legal monstrosity," saying users risked being cut off before having a chance to challenge the accusations.

Under a "three-strikes" system, a state agency would track offenders, acting on tip-offs from music and film companies, sending two warning letters, and suspending their connection for up to a year if they are caught again.

The consumer group warned it would unfairly punish businesses or families if the downloading is done by an employee or a child or by someone piggy-backing on their connection via wireless access.

Meanwhile, Internet experts warn the bill has already been overtaken by technology, since it targets file sharing or download sites just as piracy is shifting towards easy-to-use video streaming websites.

French economist Jacques Attali, an advisor to successive governments on economic reform, joined a legion of bloggers in attacking it as "scandalous and absurd," saying it "paves the way for blanket surveillance" of the web.

"It is absurd, because people no longer download, they stream audio and video … absurd because it would deprive entire families of Internet access … because real artists have nothing to lose by letting people know their work,” he wrote. "It is scandalous because, instead of for once giving something for free to young people, the main victims of the crisis, we prefer to fatten up big record and film companies."

In exchange for the crackdown on piracy, France’s film and music industries have promised to make movies more quickly available as legal downloads and to phase out copyright locks that stop digital music being played across devices.

But critics say the industry needs to work harder to invent business models that play to the Internet’s strengths, pointing at the popularity of free, legal music streaming sites such as Deezer.com.

Both Attali and UFC-Que Choisir came out in support a flat licence fee that would give consumers unlimited access to films and music, with proceeds shared out directly among artists.

A French umbrella group representing 180 high-tech and online businesses, ACSEL, also urged the government to shelve its plans to allow industry players to come up with a better answer to piracy.

"We need to be working on new business models, not bringing in measures we know won’t work," said the group’s head Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet.

The new law would make France the fourth country, after the United States, Ireland and Italy, to cut off web access for illegal downloaders.

Similar plans in New Zealand were derailed last month after dozens of websites were "blacked out" in protest and several European countries including Britain, Germany and Sweden have decided against cut-off measures.

Emma Charlton/AFP/Expatica