PARIS - Legislators in France's lower house passed a bill Tuesday that would cut the Internet connections of those who repeatedly download music and films illegally, creating what may be the first government agency to track and punish online pirates.

The bill passed 296 to 233 in a show of force by President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservatives after an initial failure last month.

The Senate was likely to definitively pass the measure Wednesday. But even then, the battle will be far from over.

The bill defies a European Parliament measure passed last week that prohibits EU governments from cutting off a user's Internet connection without first passing through a court of law. That still needs a final stamp after negotiations with the European Council.

The legislation by Sarkozy's government is hotly opposed by the rival Socialists as well as activists who claim that it kills freedoms by denying accused Internet pirates the right to challenge the charges against them. Some fear it will pave the way for Big Brother-style intrusions by government into citizens' private lives.

But international music labels, film distributors and artists have hailed the bill as a decisive step in combating online piracy in France, where CD and DVD sales have plummeted 60 per cent in the last six years.

The measure, sponsored by Culture Minister Christine Albanel, would introduce a "graduated riposte" for those pirating music and films.

Warnings to culprits would begin with two e-mails followed by a certified letter. If the piracy continues within the following year, Internet access can be cut from two months to a year - while the user keeps paying for the service.

A government organization to see that the law is properly carried out would be created.

Some critics contend that users downloading from public Wi-Fi hotspots or using masked IP addresses might be impossible to trace.

They say the law also misses the point by targeting traditional downloads at a time when online streaming is taking off, for example.

"The law is ineffective, inapplicable and dangerous," said Jeremie Zimmerman, who heads an Internet freedom activist group.

The bill failed in a vote April 9 with only a handful of legislators present - a political embarrassment for Sarkozy who had made its passage a personal priority.

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