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 policy makers as they try to bring Internet access to the masses while seeking to curb illegal copying of digital music, movies and video games.
The United States Congress held hearings last week on the growing problem of piracy, which the American entertainment industry says accounts for the loss of $20 billion a year in sales. Several lawmakers vowed to increase scrutiny of international markets where piracy is widespread.
But if events in Paris last week are any indication, legislative solutions will not be easy. French lawmakers rejected an antipiracy 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.
Mr. 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 antipiracy fight shift to a courtroom in Sweden.
On Friday, a judge in Stockholm is expected to rule 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 Mr. 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 $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.
Pirates are also turning to file hosting services like RapidShare, which allow users to upload files too big to e-mail. Others can then download them from RapidShare.
RapidShare, based in Cham, Switzerland, is widely used for legitimate purposes — for advertising agencies wanting to show campaigns to clients around the world, for example — and is password-protected, limiting public access. But music and movie pirates can get around this by posting the lists of available songs or films, along with the passwords, on outside message boards.
In several rulings, German courts have sided with GEMA, a German royalty-collection organization, in its complaints that RapidShare facilitates piracy and needs to do more to prevent it. But RapidShare, which is appealing the latest ruling, says that it removes copyrighted material at the owner’s request, and its chief executive, Bobby Chang, say it is “only an infrastructure provider, not a publisher.”
Tim Kuik, director of Brein, a Dutch antipiracy organization, says there is a paradox in the way the public views copyright online and offline.
“If you put 200 VCRs in your garage and start making and selling copies of films, you will get a visit from the police,” he said. “If you do it from a Web site, everybody says, ‘Hey, freedom of information’ ”