French Government Declares Independence From Free Speech: Broad Internet Take-Down Powers Now In Place
As its plan to completely shatter the support it received recently by attacking the very same concept of free speech its enemies declared war upon with terrorist attacks on a parody magazine not so many weeks back, the French government's ability to be laughable and simultaneously dangerous never ceases to amaze. What at once looked to be rather punctuated attacks on opinions and social media, and even cable news (which I consider a common enemy but for vastly different reasons) has now since devolved into the kind of massive overreaction against a third-party target that is, dare I say, quite American in nature. Apparently no longer content with the plan to police the ever-dangerous internet themselves, the French government has suddenly and, it must be conceded, shockingly announced that it now has veto power over the internet, requiring ISPs to censor sites at its whim. And, because cynicism is practically the secret sauce in these kinds of things, they've laced their claims of "combating terrorism" via censorship powers with a dash of "preventing child pornography" to boot.
A new decree that went into effect today allows the French government to block websites accused of promoting terrorism and publishing child pornography, without seeking a court order. Under the new rules, published last week by France's Ministry of the Interior, internet service providers (ISPs) must take down offending websites within 24 hours of receiving a government order. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve says the decree is critical to combating terrorism, but civil rights groups say it gives the government dangerously broad powers to suppress free speech.
The decree implements two provisions from two laws — an anti-child pornography law passed in 2011 and an anti-terror law passed late last year. A department of the French national police will be responsible for identifying the sites to be blocked, with the suspected terror-related sites subject to review by an anti-terrorism branch. An administrator from the CNIL, France's independent data protection organization, will be charged with overseeing the process. Once a site is blocked, its page will be replaced with an explanation of why the government took it down. In the case of child pornography pages, the text will also include a recommendation to seek medical help.
Now, anyone reading this site already knows why anointing a government with these kinds of powers, whether by the excuse of child pornography or via the far more mangled conflation of speech and terrorism, is inherently problematic. We should simply be able to trot out examples of governments declaring non-offending sites as falling under these kinds of headings and rest our case. When we see France spiral into this kind of out of control fear-based tailspin, however (particularly after having gone through it ourselves to such a degree that we're still trying to dig ourselves out of it), we should find it conscripting us to fight against a stupid history that is attempting to repeat itself.
What this move relies upon, as do most attempts to censor speech on the internet, is a misguided fear of the seduction of internet-based communications. You can see this especially in the perhaps well-intentioned proponents of censorship when they speak.
Supporters of the measure say it's critical to preventing future attacks, pointing to the growing number of young French nationals who have joined jihadist movements in Iraq and Syria, as well as aggressive online propaganda campaigns from terrorist groups like ISIS.
"Today, 90 percent of those who swing toward terrorist activities within the European Union do so after visiting the internet," Cazneuves told reporters last week, after presenting the decree to French ministers. "We do not combat terrorism if we do not take measures to regulate the internet."
Just try to implement that mode of logic in any arena that doesn't involve the internet and see how far it gets you. You'll be laughed out of the conversation if you were to say, for instance, "A large percent of those committing terrorist acts within Europe attended a mosque before doing so. We do not combat terrorism if we do not regulate mosques." It misses the point entirely, of course, because it punishes what is largely the innocent while doing very little toactually combat terrorism. We might also find that terrorists largely wear silk, or listen to a certain type of music, or are part of any number of subsets of culture that we wouldn't dream of censoring, regulating, or placing under the watchful eye of a French government that has appeared all too happy to blame everyone for the failures of both their own security apparatus and civilization as a whole. But with the internet? That we'll censor, because the ruling class is still of an age that might find it scary enough to allow it to happen.
Add to this that the blocking attempt will be largely ineffective for those with the will to circumvent it and this essentially amounts to one part grandstanding and two parts setting up a precedent for government interference in speech in the future.
"In light of the recent arrests that have followed the Charlie Hebdo attacks — many of which are clearly overboard — I would say that France's government needs to seriously think about whether this law will stop terrorists, or merely chill speech," Jillian York, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said in an email to The Verge.
Others question the effectiveness of the measure. Felix Tréguer, of the French online rights group La Quadrature du Net, says the decree risks "over-blocking perfectly legal content," adding that the domain name system (DNS) blocking that it calls for can be easily circumvented. "The measure only gives the illusion that the State is acting for our safety," Tréguer said in a statement published today, "while going one step further in undermining fundamental rights online."