Sunday, August 31 2008, 17:09
How the French government is making the internet and telecommunication companies its enemies
If there is one thing we can say safely, it is that the french president, Nicolas Sarkozy make tongues wag, and not only in his own country, which is why I am allowing myself to comment this news concerning France, but also technology and how it is seen by the french government in particular.
Xavier Niel, one of the most prominent figures of the french Internet Service Provider "Free", declared this week that Free wasn't intending to apply the Hadopi law, at least as it is. Hadopi is a law still in project supposed to prevent piracy on the Internet and Peer-to-Peer downloading of movies and artists. It wouldn't be the first time such a law would be put in place and fail: other countries tried this and lamentably failed. The biggest weapon to stop piracy in this law is what they call "graduated riposte": the supposed copyright-infringing downloader receives one e-mail everytime he gets caught using his Internet connection to download illegal files, and if he fails to comply, ultimately gets his connection line cut, which he can not renew at another ISP for 3 months.
Obviously, some ISPs weren't really happy that they should waste their resources (mapping infringing user's IP address to their real name and address and sending them e-mails and letters is bound to take time and require the hiring of employees dedicated to this sole task, which is going to be tremendous if the majors and studios are the ones making the requests) for the end result of cutting the customers' access and losing their money. While it is true that ISPs traditionally never tried to do much to stop piracy (maybe because they are, unlike politicians, well aware of the technical complexity of the task) no company would be really happy about that.
So, to come back to Xavier Niel and Free, he considers he was tricked by Olivennes' cunning plan (so cunning that it would take too much time and lines to explain) into signing a document engaging his company to comply with Hadopi and decided he wouldn't follow it for this reason, but also because he was concerned about the privacy of his customers. If this law "goes live" someday, Free wouldn't have much choice but to comply anyway, but it is a good marketing move as most of the other ISPs didn't dare to complain very loudly, which can make the difference for privacy-concerned users (and potential illegal downloaders.
However, besides the marketing move, we can feel an after-taste of revenge, which is always a dish best served cold. Recently, the government declined the Fourth 3G License rights to Free, preferring to give them to some other companies, some of which are run by close friends of the president. These competitors probably feared that Free would break the prices as it has done in the past by providing subscription-free analogic access for free and by bundling a Triple-Play offer at a much lower price than the ISPs which were simply providing basic broadband access. When you make yourself enemies by denying them their part of the cake, you can't expect them to get their support in something that is detrimental to them in the first place.
Another similar example is SFR, the second biggest mobile phone operator in France: President Sarkozy recently decided that the public TV channels should be advertisement-free, like it is in the UK, and that to finance the advertisement shortfall, companies delivering TV contents through the Internet would be taxed, which includes ISPs (again) and mobile phone companies (3G). SFR's CEO, Frank Esser obviously unhappy to have to pay 100 millions Euros per year made a a snarky comment in the Press in which he suggested to tax the national Electricity Company (EDF: Electricité de France) as he calculated that the power consumption associated with french people watching TV amounts to 1.5 billion Euros per year to the company. Both snarky and logically accurate.
All these attacks and rants from these CEOs will likely not make the government change its mind, but it is making its job harder in a very difficult economic climate and with Sarkozy's popularity rate steadily dropping. I feel very bad that Internet access is targeted like it is, especially since the very bad choices France has made in regards to it in the past. Internet companies have invested massively in the last years, especially in making broadband available to almost anyone, including low-density areas, and I don't feel the reward expected is to force them to get rid of customers, give them additional work and taxing them to no end.