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Tribunal examines Vivendi piracy claim

A French body that presides over corporate legal disputes is investigating allegations that votes at the media conglomerate's general meeting were altered.

An alleged episode of vote piracy at Vivendi Universal's general meeting is to be investigated by the Tribunal de Commerce de Paris, the body that presides over corporate legal disputes in France.

The Tribunal authorized the investigation into the malfunctions that occurred during the course of the general meeting held April 24. The meeting was intended to gain the seal of approval for corporate investments urged by Chief Executive Jean-Marie Messier, but the result has been overshadowed by claims of vote hijacking.

Vivendi Universal, along with La Societe Generale and Saint-Gobain, two of the institutional shareholders and supporters of Messier, complained of malfunctions in the electronic voting system at the meeting. According to the complaints, their "yes" votes had been found to have been counted as abstentions. Vivendi management said it suspects a "probable act of piracy" affecting about 4,000 electronic handsets given out to shareholders for voting.

Vivendi initially held back from making the accusations until it rallied the support of shareholders for its action. According to the minutes of the tribunal, three more institutional investors--Credit Agricole Asset Management, Groupe BNP Paribas and Pathe--have now complained about perceived irregularities, each stipulating that their "yes" votes had been counted as abstentions. The tribunal's notes go on to specify that 27 disputed handsets have been handed in for independent investigation.

While interest focuses on the technical aspect of the alleged piracy, the plot has thickened because banking group BNP Paribas has a stake in Multi Media Animations (MMA), the company that supplied the electronic voting technology. BNP Paribas is also one of the shareholders whose "yes" vote was transformed into an abstention.

Investigators hope they will be able to cast some light on the "probable piracy" initially referred to by a Vivendi statement made April 26. What is certain is that the 4,000 handsets supplied that day, which sent their signal by radio to a central computer in the meeting room, were responsible for 20 percent of the vote. The rest of the votes were made by proxy.

The high-frequency signals sent by the handsets can be easily intercepted, but it is still not clear whether the transmissions were encoded to protect against the potentially serious consequences of interference.

BNP Paribas declined to comment on the subject of MMA--a company that has provided technology for several key votes at well-known companies but which has no listed phone number, no mention in the directories of France Telecom, and an address in the Avenue Wagram proved to be supplied by a services company. When contacted, a representative at the service company said, "Sorry, the company has an address here, we take care of the mail, but there is no one here, no management, no offices--it's just a post box really." MMA's founder, Marcel Merette, has yet to return calls requesting comment.

One of the scenarios envisaged by Vivendi management is that someone in the meeting room was able to use a handset to vote using the identities of others, thereby falsifying the vote.

To comply with French law, the handsets in question can only transmit one of two frequencies--433 MHz or 866MHz. According to one expert in radio security it would certainly be possible to hijack that signal, depending on the level of security implemented. The expert pointed out, however, that it is no mean feat to simultaneously pull together several votes and falsify them in real time using one handset.

"Without even taking into account the security system, that's already one hell of a job to pull off," the expert said. "To do that you'd need the kind of kit that your average radio fan just doesn't possess and that would imply prior preparation, not to say an inside job."

The results of the Tribunal de Commerce inquiry into the voting are due in six weeks.

ZDNet France's Jerome Thorel reported from Paris.