The Spanish government has finally approved controversial anti-piracy measures aimed at the illegal downloading of copyrighted material on the Internet.

The law, unveiled in early December and passed by the Cabinet on Friday (Jan. 8), focuses on measures to shut down Web sites found to be hosting illegal content.

In order to become law, the measures must first be reviewed and approved by a series of governmental and judicial consultative bodies, before being presented to parliament for discussion. This process, complicated by the complex legal issues involved, is predicted to take several months at the least, and no final legislative decision is expected before the end of summer.

The law consists of two phases, one administrative and the other judicial.

Accusations of illegal downloading of copyrighted material would be made by the relevant copyright holders to a newly constituted Intellectual Property Commission, belonging to the Ministry of Culture, which would then have between three and six months to investigate the charges and determine if copyrights are in fact being infringed.

The results of this investigation, plus a recommendation either favoring or opposing closure of the accused site, would be presented to the country's High Court, which would then have just four days to decide whether or not to proceed with criminal charges, removal of the affected files, and the possible closing of the web site.

The court's only real mandate during this process is to determine the competence of the Commission to request its recommendations and to ensure that no fundamental rights are being violated. Appeals and issues of law would then be processed through the regular courts.

Apart from the expected criticism and intense protests of the new law by Internet consumer groups, legal experts warn that the complexity of intellectual property rights issues will mean long trials and appeals, and it's not at all clear who would be responsible for accrued costs to injured parties if they are found not to have infringed the law after all.