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Download a song, lose your Internet connection?

Under a proposed French law, illegal downloading would result in the loss of Internet access.

SAN FRANCISCO — France has made itself the center of a worldwide controversy over how far governments should go to protect copyrighted works from being illegally downloaded over the Internet.

The government of President Nicholas Sarkozy is poised to enact a law that would cut off Internet access for up to a year for any French national caught making three illegal downloads of music, movies or books. The measure has provoked intense debate, and not just in France. In the European Union, disagreement over the French proposal has temporarily derailed the passage of legislation to reform Europe's telecommunications landscape.

The law titled “Creation et Internet,” but dubbed “three strikes,” is currently being reviewed by France's Constitutional Council, which has a month to make a decision. If it allows the law to take effect this summer, French Culture Minister Christine Albanel has reportedly estimated that authorities could cut off 1,000 Internet connections a day once enforcement gets underway.

Wendy Seltzer, a fellow with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said the French law is the first to require Internet service providers to cut off access based on accusations of illicit downloads. At present, copyright owners generally have to file civil lawsuits to enforce their rights and recover damages from abusers.

“The people watching this most closely are the entertainment companies that are hoping this will be a model for other governments,” she said.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the London-based organization that represents music publishers in 72 countries, praised Sarkozy's initiative. “The new French law takes the right approach and sets an example to the rest of the world,” the group said.

The group recently estimated that "over 40 billion files were illegally file-shared in 2008," or about 95 percent of all music downloads. But in some nations the phenomenon may have peaked. A 2007 article on global consumer values published in the International Journal of Business Research suggests that illegal file sharing is leveling off in the United States, and declining in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden and Japan, owing to factors ranging from the availability of legal downloads to fear of legal action. Elsewhere, however, the piracy trend seems to be on the rise, the report said.

In France the law is also known as HADOPI, the acronym for the government agency — Haute Autorite pour la diffusion des œuvres et la protection des droits sur internet — that it would create to enforce the copyright protection regime.