French National Assembly votes for new 'three strikes' bill

Disagreement with the Senate over details of the bill means further votes are required before it becomes law

The French government is still pursuing its plan to cut off Internet users accused of copyright infringement -- although a new version of the so-called "three strikes" bill approved by the National Assembly on Tuesday now requires that a court make the decision to suspend a surfer's Internet access.

The bill takes its "three strikes" nickname from the three accusations of copyright infringement that must be levelled at surfers before their Internet access is suspended.

An earlier version of the law handed 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 -- another nickname for the law). It was approved by the French Parliament in April but the Constitutional Council struck that measure down as unconstitutional before it was signed into law. The government immediately vowed to return to parliament with a new bill, Hadopi 2, that would satisfy the Constitutional Council.

The Senate approved that text in July, and on Tuesday deputies in the National Assembly adopted it by 285 votes to 225.

However, the deputies made a number of amendments to the Senate's text, and in France a bill cannot become law until both houses of Parliament agree to the same text. That means that the government must now form a committee of deputies and senators to come up with a compromise bill and submit it to both houses for a vote.

The compromise process usually goes without a hitch, but in a surprise vote in April the National Assembly rejected the compromise text for the first version of the law, Hadopi, by 21 votes to 15.

While the new bill requires that suspension of Internet access be ordered by a judge, rather than decided by an administrative agency in an automated process, it toughens sanctions in other areas.

Internet subscribers will now be held liable if someone uses their Internet connection to illegally download copyright works -- even if they do not explicitly authorize it, but allow it to happen through negligence. That could be the case if their computer was attacked by malware and fell under someone else's control, or if their wireless Internet access was inadequately secured.

The bill also adds a €5,000 (US$7,300) fine for Internet service providers that fail to suspend the Internet access of a customer when ordered by a judge, and a €3,750 fine for surfers who take out a second Internet subscription to get around a suspension ordered by a judge.

The latest bill's progress has been closely followed by other governments under pressure from record labels and film studios to crack down on Internet piracy.

But the premise that songwriters and musicians will benefit from the stronger penalties for copyright infringement proposed by the bill is disputed by many -- including the artists themselves.

Last week a group of predominantly British musicians, the Featured Artists Coalition, criticized U.K. government plans for a similar three-strikes law, saying that "Processes of monitoring, notification and sanction are not conducive to achieving a vibrant, functional, fair and competitive market for music."

The group's members, including Billy Bragg, KT Tunstall, Robbie Williams and Radiohead, said that a consultation paper issued by the U.K. government indicates "a mindset so far removed from that of the general public and music consumer that it seems an extraordinarily negative document."

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