Last week was bad one for French efforts against piracy. On Friday they staged a less-than-perfect rescue operation against Somali pirates that resulted in the death of one French hostage. The day before, attempts by President Sarkozy to take a world-leading stance against internet piracy had descended into humiliating farce.
The President’s UMP party proposed a world-first law in June last year that would give authorities the right to track internet pirates through their IP addresses. Adopting a three strikes approach, offenders would be given two warnings to stop their illegal downloading before ISPs would cut off their internet connections for between two months and a year — during which time they would nevertheless continue to be billed for the service.
The proposed law had the open support of 10,000 French music professionals, artists and creators. Actress Catherine Deneuve, however, was not among them, berating the law as "demagogic, inapplicable and stupidly ignorant of new ways of downloading".
She was not alone. Newspaper surveys have since shown 60 per cent of French people opposed the law. This includes the hundred-strong flash mob that gathered outside the Ministry of Culture waving artichokes (and even a broccoli), brandishing "a ridiculous vegetable against a ridiculous law", as organisers explained. The mob disappeared exactly seven minutes later, leaving their greens at the front gate.
Nevertheless, both major parties had approved the "Creation and Internet" law earlier last week, and it progressed to the National Assembly to get its last reading and customary tick on Thursday, before Easter recess.
With the UMP members confident the bill would pass, several snuck off early for the Easter break. As a result, the bill failed to gain enough votes, and was struck down 15-21 — the first time in 26 years that a bill failed at its last reading. It will be re-presented once Parliament returns at the end of April.
The result infuriated the Right, who accused the Socialist party members of sabotage. Denis Olivennes, director of a national newspaper and former director of a French music and entertainment chain, captured their sentiment in Le Monde: "France is at once the European country that knows best how to protect its artists and creators through exceptional cultural principles, and the country that is also a pirates’ paradise."
While Australia has been exploring ways to censor and block illegal websites through mandatory filtering (with little result and less support), European governments are more interested in stemming illegal file-sharing. And as France shows, they are willing to legislate to do so.
The momentum for such action has grown since the EU unveiled its directive on the enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRED) in April 2004, which allows for the censuring of member states who lack what are deemed to be necessary or efficient procedures against intellectual property rights infringements.
Unusually it is Sweden that has found itself leading the European charge. On 1 April, the Swedish Government enacted a new law based on IPRED against illegal file-sharing. Under the law, copyright holders can seek court orders forcing ISPs to provide the IP addresses of computers that have shared copyrighted material.
Within 24 hours, five publishers had used the law to seek a man suspected of sharing more than 2000 audio books. Three days later, three people had been arrested, and internet traffic had apparently fallen 33 per cent, according to a Swedish internet monitoring firm.
Despite reassurances from Swedish publishers that the laws would only be used against the "big fish" in file sharing, advocates of copyright law reform are not appeased. Christian Engstrom, vice-chairman of the Pirate Party, told the BBC that, as with other laws, file-sharing laws should be for the police to enforce, not companies. But the new law has "given private corporations the legal right to go after our civilians. That’s not how Western democracies work."
Nevertheless, with an estimated two million file-sharing computers in Sweden, Engstrom predicted that the law would not change things very much from the average user’s point of view: "Even if they prosecuted 1000 people to make an example of them, for an individual user it is still a very small risk."
The Swedish Government’s strong stance is not so surprising, particularly as it prepares to hold the EU presidency from July. In recent years, the land of the Vikings has become a pinup for piracy, thanks largely to its hosting the world’s largest and most infamous torrent tracking site, the Pirate Bay.
In a court case launched in February reminiscent of the Napster trial, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry has pursued the Pirate Bay’s site creators for "assisting in making copyright content available". The accused maintain that their site provides merely the means for exchanging files. With the verdict to be announced on Friday, web pundits are pondering what the ramifications will be of either side winning.
Tech news site Webtvwire.com predicts that an outcome against Pirate Bay could "cement other countries positions on copyright infringements, especially in Europe". Even so, it suggests that the net effect of either result will be minimal: "The vast majority of people don’t actually think [copyright infringement]is wrong."
Meanwhile, the Pirate Bay has been busy ensuring their site doesn’t fall foul of Sweden’s new IPRED law. Last week, the national daily Dagens Nyheter reported that the creators had launched an anonymity service that keeps no record of users’ login information.
Pirate Bay spokesman and co-accused, Peter Sunde, said it would thus be impossible to hand over a user’s IP details, court order or none, adding: "113,000 people are already waiting to sign up."
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