Is Internet access a fundamental human right? Or is it a privilege, carrying with it a responsibility for good behavior?
That is the question confronting policymakers trying to bring Internet access to the masses while seeking to curb illegal copying of digital music, movies and video games.
The US Congress held hearings last week on the growing problem of piracy, which the US entertainment industry says accounts for the loss of US$20 billion a year in sales.
But if events in Paris last week are any indication, legislative solutions will not be easy. French lawmakers rejected an anti-piracy plan championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, where the Internet connections of people who ignored repeated warnings to stop using unauthorized file-sharing services would have been severed.
Sarkozy said he planned to reintroduce the measure, but public opinion is solidly against the idea of cutting off Internet users, and many politicians — not just in France but across Europe and elsewhere — are listening.
Last month, in a pre-emptive strike, the European Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution calling Internet access a fundamental freedom that could not be restricted except by a court of law.
New Zealand recently suspended a law under which Internet service providers would have been required to crack down on illicit copying. And in Britain, years of discussion between content owners, Internet providers and the government have failed to produce a plan to curb piracy.
“There’s increasing understanding that broadband is fundamental to basic economic and social participation,” said Sacha Wunsch-Vincent, an economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who studies information technology. “Some people wonder whether this is consistent with cutting off Internet connections.”
Content owners have sometimes had more luck with the courts, winning a series of rulings against accused pirates. They are hoping for another favorable decision this week when the front lines of the anti-piracy fight shift to a courtroom in Sweden.
A judge in Stockholm is expected to rule today on whether four people connected with a popular file-sharing service, the Pirate Bay, are guilty of criminal violations of copyright law. If so, they could face as much as two years in prison.
But both sides have indicated that they would appeal any decision against them, and the Pirate Bay has said that it could keep operating the service from another country.
Meanwhile, new ways of sharing copyrighted material are gaining popularity on the Internet.
Even as French lawmakers prepared to vote on Sarkozy’s proposal, the Pirate Bay was offering a new service aimed at foiling both that plan and other efforts to track down file sharers. The site charges users 5 euros a month, or about US$6.60, for technology capable of hiding a computer’s Internet address.
The system was developed to counter a new law in Sweden that makes it easier for the authorities, going through the courts, to obtain the Internet addresses of suspected copyright violators.
Since that law took effect on April 1, Internet traffic has fallen by more than a third, suggesting less unauthorized file sharing, which is estimated to account for as much as half of all Internet traffic.
David Price, head of piracy intelligence at Envisional, a company based in Cambridge, England, that helps movie studios and other clients monitor copyright violations on the Internet, said that while file sharing by peer-to-peer networks appeared to be leveling off globally, sites that offered alternatives to downloading, like streaming of pirated movies, were growing fast.