Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, including the murder of several journalists at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, we anticipated that the French government would overreact. Sure enough, recent reporting has revealed that France is censoring websites and pushing for broader surveillance powers.
According to the reporting, France has invoked a recently enacted law and censored five websites that the government deems incite or glorify terrorism, and the government plans to censor dozens more. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was quoted as saying, “I do not want to see sites that could lead people to take up arms on the Internet." He added, “I make a distinction between freedom of expression and the spread of messages that serve to glorify terrorism. These hate messages are a crime."
The reporting indicates that the government’s plan is to send blocking orders to Internet service providers (ISPs). However, when we tried to access one website mentioned, www.islamic-news.info, we expected to reach the original content because we used a U.S.-based ISP not subject to France’s blocking order (French users are apparently redirected to a government page with a notice that the content on the site is being blocked because it incites or glorifies terrorism). Instead, at that address we reached a page advertising the web host’s services, indicating that the entire website has been taken down, not just blocked.
Any kind of censorship is problematic. Blocking Internet content at the ISP level, however, does not affect the existence of the content itself, just how the content can be accessed. Depending on how an ISP blocks content, blocked websites may be accessible using a different (non-complying) ISP; using a proxy technology like a virtual private network (VPN) or Tor; by typing in the website's IP address instead of its domain name; or by using an independent DNS server.
Taking down Internet content from its hosted location prevents the content from being accessed at all, which is especially disturbing if the takedown order was of questionable legality. We do not know if the content on www.islamic-news.info was voluntarily taken down by the hosting company or if the takedown was in response to a government order.
On the surveillance front, the French government is trying to make it easier to hack into citizens’ computers and mobile devices, and to conduct mass surveillance with the help of ISPs and telecommunications companies.
Both of France’s censorship and surveillance initiatives lack any judicial oversight. French judges apparently cannot authorize blocking, takedown, or surveillance orders, or review government requests to ensure that they are legal and otherwise appropriate.
An independent judiciary is critical to a free society. The power of the legislative and executive branches of government must be checked by impartial judges in order to protect individual rights and ensure that the laws are followed. Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”
We urge the French government to consider how its censorship and surveillance efforts are impacting the free speech and privacy rights of French citizens, and we specifically call for judicial review to ensure that parliament or the executive ministries do not trample on those rights.