French court to pirates: Three strikes and ... then what?

France's highest legal authority has ruled as unconstitutional a government plan to cut off, without trial, Internet users accused of copyright infringement.

The so-called "three strikes" law would have handed over the power to disconnect surfers to a newly created High Authority for the Distribution of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet (Hadopi). It was approved by the French Parliament in April but has not yet been signed into law.

It would have forced Internet service providers to disconnect users at the request of the Hadopi. The authority, in turn, would act upon accusations of copyright infringement received from rights holders such as record companies and movie studios, sending out a warning to the Internet user after the first accusation, a final warning after the second, and then ordering the ISP to suspend their access for up to a year, all without trial. The law would have ended the presumption of innocence found elsewhere in French law, leaving it to those cut off from the Internet to file a suit to have their connection reinstated.

On Wednesday, however, the Constitutional Council ruled that aspect of the law unconstitutional, leaving Hadopi toothless. Most of the rest of the law still stands, so the authority may still send out the warning letters, but copyright holders will have to ask a court to order ISPs to disconnect those accused of copyright infringement.

Minister for Culture Christine Albanel, who pushed the law through Parliament, vowed immediately to amend the law to enable the authority to take surfers to court, and looked on the bright side of the Council's ruling.

"It's very important that the educative process of piracy prevention has been adopted by the Constitutional Council," she said in a statement.

Online civil rights groups welcomed the Council's decision.

"Hadopi's 'three strikes' is finally buried. All we have now is a big tax-sponsored spam machine for the entertainment industries," said Jérémie Zimmermann, a spokesman for campaign group La Quadrature du Net, in a statement.

The French Constitutional Council's decision may have saved the European Commission some work: Members of the European Parliament recently voted an amendment to a new telecommunications law that will outlaw the suspension of Internet access without trial on civil rights grounds. MEPs increasingly see access to information, much of it now only available on the Internet, a vital to democratic society.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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