Viva la France! French lawmakers have unexpectedly rejected a bill that would have cut off Internet access to people who repeatedly download music or videos illegally. The law, which was supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, could have resulted in a year’s suspension of Internet access for individuals after being warned by both an e-mail and a letter.
The French Senate passed the bill April 3, but it was rejected by a vote of 21-15 last week by a sparsely attended session of the lower house, France’s National Assembly. Similar proposals in New Zealand, Britain, Germany and Sweden have been met with protests by civil liberties groups and others, according to Agence France-Presse.
Based on the number of votes, I’d hardly call the outcome in France a repudiation. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s international outreach coordinator, Danny O’Brien, expects the bill to be reintroduced and passed. But he thinks it will then be reviewed by France’s Constitutional Council, which is roughly equivalent to our Supreme Court.
“There’s a strong chance that the council will have something to say about this,” said O’Brien, “because it does raise so many questions about natural justice and civil liberties.”
While I am not aware of any similar legislation in the United States, there are reports that the Recording Industry Association of America is exploring ways to get Internet service providers, or ISPs, to voluntarily discipline customers who repeatedly ignore warnings to stop downloading or sharing copyrighted files.
It’s not clear exactly what the recording association has in mind and what type of cooperation they will get from ISPs, but CNet News reported last month that an AT&T executive told an audience at a music conference that the company has started to issue warning notices to people suspected of sharing music files. It also reported that Comcast is cooperating with the association, but neither company has threatened to suspend or terminate accounts of those accused of such violations.
It’s also not clear how the companies’ term of service, which generally prohibit using their networks for illegal activities, could come into play. Comcast’s conduct and information restrictions, for example, prohibits “any unlawful purpose,” including that “which infringes the intellectual property rights of any person or entity.”
The company “reserves the right immediately to suspend or terminate your service” if you violate its agreement, so it wouldn’t be an enormous stretch for it to use the member agreement as grounds for action. In other words, it reserves the right to do exactly what the French law would have forced French ISPs to do.
I’m not sure what is worse — the proposed French law or the idea of voluntary cooperation between the recording industry and ISPs. In both cases there is a lack of due process. Even though there are warnings, there is no judicial review. At least when the recording association sued people, there was an opportunity to face your accuser in a court of law. Voluntary cooperation between companies leaves even representatives of the public completely out of the loop.
One could argue that this is a private matter. ISPs are not government agencies and they should have the right to discipline customers who violate their terms, just as we have the right to pick our ISP. But the problem is that taking away someone’s Internet access these days can be a very severe penalty.
For many people, loss of Internet access could result in the loss of livelihoods as well as their primary source of news and information, not to mention their ability to perform vital tasks such as banking, shopping and making travel arrangements.
What’s more, Internet access is typically shared among every member of a household. Should a child be denied the right to do his or her homework because a parent or a sibling allegedly violates the copyright law? And what about roommates? Are they to be punished for the crime of living with someone who is presumed guilty?
I’m not condoning copyright violations. I’m a copyright holder myself, and my son is a professional musician and songwriter. I respect the need for artists, writers and other creative people to find ways to protect their livelihoods. But if we are going to impose severe punishments for copyright violations, we should do it within the bounds of the legal system.
Laws — not private deals — should be vigorously debated by the public and legislators and, if enacted, should be carried out by courts and real judges, not people who happen to work for recording companies, trade associations or ISPs. The stakes for all involved are that high.