French President Nicolas Sarkozy has never hidden his infatuation with celebrities. In recent years Sarkozy has burst with pride while being photographed with the stars he likes to count as both political supporters and personal friends. In 2007, he even went and married one. But as Sarkozy's government tries to crack down on illegal Internet downloads of music and movies, suspicions have surfaced that the proposed regulation could be just another case of the President protecting his famous friends.
The draft law, currently being debated in the parliament, would create a new Internet surveillance system to combat online piracy one that critics call a Big Brotherlike attempt to police people's Web activity. Introduced by Sarkozy's Culture Minister, Christine Albanel, the bill seeks to enlist Internet service providers (ISPs), entertainment-industry organizations and French legal authorities in an effort to identify and dissuade illegal downloading of copyrighted music and video. A monitoring agency would send Web users who illegally download media a cease and desist notice. Should two warnings go unheeded, ISPs would be forced to cut Web access for one to 12 months and add the user's name to a blacklist of pirates, where it would stay for the duration of the ban. (See pictures of YouTube's rise.)
The bill follows a government-sponsored agreement hammered out last November. That deal sought to stem the enormous losses studios and their stars suffer to online piracy. But critics claim ISPs have been coerced into the drive by the organization representing French copyright holders. The pact was negotiated by the head of one of France's largest music and video retailing chains. Detractors of that move include opposition politicians, consumer groups and even France's ethics watchdog on new technologies and communication. They claim that ISPs have been forced into a heavy-handed alliance of industry forces that want to protect the interests of Sarkozy's celebrity pals. (See pictures of Sarkozy in London.)
"This bill is serving an archaic fairy tale up to artists, but in reality is an authoritarian sleight of hand," says Socialist legislator Christian Paul, who adds that the music and film industry has to face the reality of the Web today. "It's a bad text with lots of problems, and which opposes performers and Internet users," says Patrick Bloche, spokesman for Socialist Party legislators in parliament.
Sarkozy's conservative supporters counter that remaining soft on Internet piracy will lead French artists to rapid ruin. Within the past five years alone, French record companies have seen sales plunge by more than 50%, mostly because of illegal music downloading. Polls indicate that more than one-third of French people say they have downloaded and exchanged copyright-protected files at least once. Entertainment-industry organizations say about 450,000 illegal downloads take place in France each day. That has cost French musicians and studios about $10 million in royalties annually over the past five years. That loss of financial incentive to create, some say, is undermining France's cultural expression.
"It's urgent to get out of this situation that's as dangerous for Internet users as it is dramatic for French cultural creators and industries," Albanel told parliament. The bill, she says, is needed to defend France's "cultural exception." It's "also a realistic project that of course does not claim it will completely eradicate the mass phenomenon of pirating cultural works on the Internet."
She can say that again. Judicial experts and consumer groups say the bill's proposed policing system will generate many legal challenges especially regarding invasion-of-privacy issues, and the identification of IP addresses to track people who illegally download. That's especially true in a world where the most prolific pirates hackers and computer geeks can hide their identities behind hijacked ones. "The bill violates the principle of presumption of innocence," noted consumer group UFC Que Choisir in a statement, "because the onus would be on the Internet users to prove their good faith."
Perhaps. But France isn't the only country considering such punitive action. In January, Irish ISP Eirecom struck a deal with record companies under which it would ban clients who were found to be illegally downloading music. The U.K. is also contemplating forcing ISPs to disconnect customers tied to online piracy as part of its push to make broadband access universal by 2012. In Brussels, meanwhile, debate rages over the future of network neutrality the degree of free and equal access to the Internet. Governments and business interests want the ability to increasingly filter its use. (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
A lot is at stake. Studies estimate that nearly 95% of music downloaded around the globe in 2008 40 billion files was illegal. That would suggest that a ban in France might not actually help French artists too much because their work could still be pilfered elsewhere. But the sad truth is that royalties for presidential buddies like withered rocker Johnny Hallyday or comic actor Christian Clavier still do come primarily from France. After all, who else really wants their stuff in the first place?