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France to Ban Illegal File-Sharers From the Internet?

New 3-strikes-and-your-out policy will lead to the suspension or termination of internet connections for persistent pirates.

Copyright holders seem to be taking a different tack these days in its ongoing war on internet piracy. Instead of laboriously having to target individuals or sites using its own resources, it’s now trying to enlist ISPs in its fight to try and prevent persistent file-sharers from even connecting to the internet in the first place.

A ominous new agreement currently referred to as the Memorandum of Understanding, was signed in Paris today by music producers, audiovisual producers, ISPs and public authorities, each pledging to do their part in fighting internet piracy. The plan, endorsed by the French President himself, Nicolas Sarkozy, calls for the creation of a independent government body which will operate a system of warnings leading to the suspension or termination of internet subscriptions used for illegal file-sharing – essentially a three-strikes-and-you-are-out policy against repeat offenders. In return for the govt’s crackdown on illegal file-sharing, the French music industry has agreed to drop DRM protections for French music catalogues so that it can be downloaded and played on any type of portable media player. For its part, the French movie industry has also agreed to speed up the release of movies on DVD.

‚ÄúThis is the single most important initiative to help win the war on online piracy that we have seen so far,” said John Kennedy, Chairman & CEO of IFPI, the organisation representing the recording industry worldwide. “President Sarkozy has shown leadership and vision. He has recognised the importance that the creative industries play in contemporary western economies.”

The winners will be French music, French employees and French music fans. By requiring ISPs to play a role in the fight against piracy, President Sarkozy has set an example to others of how to ensure that the creative industries remain strong in difficult markets so that they can remain major economic and cultural contributors to society.

In a rebuke to the thought of ISPs becoming internet policeman, UFC-Que Choisir, a consumer association, said the plans were “very harsh, potentially repressive, anti-economic and against the grain of the digital age”. It pointed out that illegal downloading was already punishable by a prison term of up to three years.

Marc Le Fur and Alain Suguenot, both deputies from Mr Sarkozy’s UMP party, said in a statement that they deplored the proposal to confer judicial -powers on an enforcement agency, saying the move “creates a truly exceptional jurisdiction for downloaders contravening the principle of equality before the law.”

This move is eerily similar to efforts afoot in the UK to also get ISPs to play a role in illegal file-sharing. Lord Triesman, the parliamentary Under Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said recently that intellectual property theft would no longer be tolerated. He has called on ISPs to take a “more activist role” in the problem of illegal file-sharing and that “If we can’t get voluntary arrangements we will legislate.”

The Federation Against Software Theft (FAST), for its part, has called for banning offenders from using the internet altogether.

There are similar efforts being attempted in the US, but so far they have been largely unsuccessful because ISPs know that consumers would simply drop them and choose an alternative if it was discovered that any content being shared was monitored. The issue also raises a large number of privacy concerns and technological hurdles, not the least of which being the difficulty in determining which 300MB file is a home movie or the latest episode of ‘Heroes.”

What’s so astonishing here is that this copyright enforcement mechanism is being carried out in France, a country that spawned democracy with its citizens’ storming of the Bastille prison. Now it’s working to circumvent democracy by placing ISPs and copyright holders in the position of judge and jury.

Content monitoring is a slippery slope to say the least, and when the govt and private business concerns collaborate to remove people from the “information superhighway” without due process of law being afforded them simply because industry profits are at risk, it doesn’t bode well for the future of information and the free flow of it necessary for an educated, and well informed society.

The French govt seems to think that as long as the people of France can download DRM-free French music then all is well. Too bad everything else – non-French music and content – suffers as a result.

I know France is perpetually ribbed for its penchant for capitulation and surrender, but it seems to certainly fulfill this caricature by refusing to look at the real problem – archaic copyright laws – and instead bowing to the music industry and others who would rather maintain the status quo. Rather than embrace and adapt to new technology like digital distribution they choose instead to hijack it and mold it to its own liking.

The French, who pride themselves on reflection and debate and of being a nation of people committed to the freedom of thought, speech, and of the unbridled power of the human spirit, should be among the loudest voices protesting this effort.