French lawmakers attend the vote on a bill to combat Internet piracy, in May.

France’s highest legal authority on Wednesday struck down a key provision of a contested Internet piracy law that set up a new state agency to cut off offenders from the web.

The ruling is an embarrassing setback for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who championed the adoption of the tough new legislation last month.

The Constitutional Council ruled that "free access to public communication services on line" was a human right, and that only a judge should have the power to strike an individual from the Internet.

Council members, who include former French presidents, based their ruling on the preamble to the French constitution, which lists freedom of communication and expression as a basic human right.

France’s opposition Socialist Party had asked the Council to rule on the constitutional legality of the bill, which won final parliamentary approval on May 13.

One of the toughest ever drafted in the global fight against Internet piracy, the law would punish those who download music and film illegally by shutting down their Internet access for up to a year.

The law approved the set-up of of a state agency known by the acronym Hadopi to track and punish illegal downloaders, serving as a go-between for content providers and Internet service providers.

Under a "three-strikes" system, offenders would first receive an email warning, then a letter and finally lose their Internet account for up to a year if they are caught a third time.

The bill enjoyed broad support from the music and film industry in France and abroad, but was fiercely opposed by consumer groups, the Internet industry and the left-wing opposition.

Opponents said the bill failed to give alleged offenders enough recourse to challenge accusations and argued that web innovations would make it possible for downloaders to avoid detection.

Source: AFP