Does France’s trailblazing Internet antipiracy law risk death by a thousand cuts? That could well be the case in light of comments made on Thursday by Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti, in which she revealed plans to slash funding for the organization enforcing the law — one of the few surviving policy innovations of former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reign.
Yet because the French left is as reliant on the support of its entertainment industry as U.S. Democrats are on backing from Hollywood, the ruling Socialists may yet decide that repealing the iconic Sarkozy law isn’t worth the ire it will raise among musicians, actors and studios. Instead, they may simply leave the legislation on the books, while completely gutting its implementation.
In an interview published on Thursday by the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, Filippetti said she’ll reduce the budget for the country’s antipiracy agency — the High Authority for the Broadcast of Works and Protection of Copyrights on the Internet, known as Hadopi. In a period of economic crisis that’s imposing belt-tightening all around, Filippetti said, she preferred to cut budgets on state agencies whose usefulness is in doubt rather than on those whose services are valued.
“Financially speaking, 12 million euros per year and 60 employees is [an] expensive [way] to send out a million e-mails,” Filippetti said, referring to Hadopi’s procedure of sending three cease-and-desist warnings to Internet users identified as having downloaded copyrighted content illegally before they are fined and cut off from Web access. “Within the context of budget cutting, I’ll request operational funding to Hadopi be reduced … I’d rather reduce financing of things whose usefulness hasn’t been proven.”
Gauging Hadopi’s impact often depends on who is asked. An independent study released after the law’s 2009 passage found online piracy had actually increased by 3% in the first year. Later surveys showed a modest decline among people who stopped their occasional downloading of copyrighted material in deference to Hadopi. A poll of French Internet users commissioned by Hadopi itself last year indicated that the law, and its graduated warning procedure, had indeed changed formerly insouciant public attitudes on illicit downloading. More significantly still, the poll found a growing number of people saying they’d halted peer-to-peer file sharing.
But as Hadopi acknowledged, the reported drop in peer-to-peer activity was accompanied by a surge in people saying they’d turned to direct-download sites like Megaupload, where user detection is difficult or impossible. It’s unknown how the legal action taken against Megaupload and its founder by the U.S. has affected wider direct-download traffic — in France, or abroad. But that’s only one way the French were getting around the law online. The Hadopi poll also found a growing number of Internet users saying they capture and save copyrighted music, TV shows and music streamed on their computers.
When it was enacted with considerable difficulty in 2009, the French law that created Hadopi was cheered by the entertainment industry — Hollywood in particular — as a bold and necessary effort to battle online piracy. Critics mocked it as a futile attempt by a single country to tackle a global phenomenon — and via a widely flaunted legislation to boot. Be that as it may, Hadopi was eventually followed by similar antipiracy laws in the U.K., New Zealand, Spain and elsewhere. Despite that trend, Filippetti is now making clear that her government has serious reservations about Hadopi beyond its efficiency and cost.
“Suspension of Internet access strikes me as disproportionate to the goal being sought,” Filippetti told Le Nouvel Observateur. “Hadopi has [also] failed in its mission to develop legal alternatives [to illegal downloading].”
So what happens to Hadopi? While it’s clear that a large degree of Socialist antagonism to the law arises from its Sarkozy origins, even Filippetti isn’t pledging to repeal it. Overturning Hadopi, she says, is only one option being considered in a wider review of digital policies now under way and is headed by former Canal Plus boss Pierre Lescure. Initial findings are expected in September, though it seems unlikely Lescure would ever consider calling for a return to the unregulated, unmonitored pre-Hadopi scenario.
It also seems improbable that France’s Socialists would risk infuriating their many supporters within the nation’s entertainment industry. Most of those performers already stand to suffer the government’s pledge to raise income taxes on people earning more than $1.2 million per year to 75%. That blow to the wallet will be bad enough. But removing what little protection Hollywood-sur-Seine enjoys from Internet piracy by repealing Hadopi might be the last straw that tips France’s left-leaning music and movie stars into the unthinkable: nostalgia for a Sarkozy presidency.