PARIS Internet users in France who frequently download music or films illegally risk losing Web access under a new anti-piracy system unveiled on Friday.
The three-way pact between Internet service providers, the government and owners of film and music rights is a boon to the music industry, which has been calling for such measures to stop illicit downloads eating into its sales.
Under the agreement -- drawn up by a commission headed by the chief executive of FNAC, one of France's biggest music and film retailers -- service providers will issue warning messages to customers downloading files illegally.
If users ignore those messages, their accounts could be suspended or closed altogether.
"We run the risk of witnessing a genuine destruction of culture," French president Nicolas Sarkozy said in a speech endorsing the deal.
"The Internet must not become a high-tech Far West, a lawless zone where outlaws can pillage works with abandon or, worse, trade in them in total impunity. And on whose backs? On artists' backs," he added.
An independent authority will be set up and put in charge of deciding when to issue Internet users with "electronic warning messages". The authority will be supervised by a judge.
The deal also creates obligations for film and music companies, who pledge to make their works available online more quickly and to remove technical barriers such as those that make music tracks unreadable on certain platforms.
The international recording industry hailed the move.
"This is the single most important initiative to help win the war on online piracy that we have seen so far," John Kennedy, head of the industry's trade body IFPI, said.
"President Sarkozy has shown leadership and vision. He has recognised the importance that the creative industries play in contemporary western economies," Kennedy said in a statement.
French consumers' groups and politicians, however, have said the deal, which was signed by several companies on Friday, is too restrictive.
Consumer group UFC Que Choisir said in a statement that the deal was "very tough, potentially destructive of freedom, antieconomic and against digital history," arguing that tough anti-piracy penalties are already in place.
Sarkozy said it would take time for the effects of the new system to become clear, but it would achieve its aims.
"If it works, we will carry on the same way. If it does not work well enough, we will take the measures to obtain results," Sarkozy said.
(Additional reporting by Kate Holton in London; Editing by David Cowell)