Vive le Censeur!


France, long known as the birthplace of civil rights, passed legislation late last month that could limit freedom of expression online and turn Internet service providers into megacensors for the government.

The inaptly titled Liberty of Communication Act requires anyone who publishes on the Web to register with the government. Individuals must include either their name and address or the name of their service provider on all postings to discussion groups, mailing lists, newsgroups, and home pages. In addition, service providers must verify the names and addresses of clients and follow court orders to delete content or kill sites. And if a third party complains about postings that could be libelous or threatening, providers bear the burden for “appropriate diligences”—a vaguely termed obligation widely interpreted to mean investigating and removing the offending material.

Barry Steinhardt, associate director for the American Civil Liberties Union, says French Internet providers may shy away from hosting sites outside the mainstream, for fear of being forced to police controversial content. The legislation “really threatens freedom of speech on the Internet in ways that would be totally unacceptable for Americans,” says Steinhardt. “It should give the French pause as well.”

In the rush toward globalization, legal precedents established in one country often carry weight in another. France’s new law sets the table for restrictive legislation elsewhere, and could result in the country censoring content that originates outside its borders. “There is a very real danger here to Americans,” says Steinhardt.

The Liberty of Communication Act started out innocuously enough as an attempt to codify the rights and duties of French audiovisual companies. But after a nude photo of model Estelle Halliday was posted without her permission last year, the government began seeking a mechanism for hunting down Internet wrongdoers. In February, Parliament tacked on a surprise amendment that contained not only new regulations for people writing online but stiff penalties for breaking the law. Violators risked fines of up to 25,000 francs (about $3600) and up to three months in jail. The French government justified the proposed policy by saying that in an effort to control cybercrimes, citizens had to be prepared to relinquish anonymity.

European Internet groups were having none of that logic. One of France’s leading advocates for free cyberspeech, Imaginons un Réseau Internet Solidaire, launched a petition drive against the amendment. Signed by the ACLU, the French Green and Communist parties, and a cluster of international organizations, the petition raised enough of a ruckus that Parliament agreed to strike the fines and jail sentences from the law—rendering the legislation essentially symbolic.

Symbolic or not, the Liberty of Communication Act is still raising hackles among free-speech advocates worldwide. Jota Castro, a European artist who exhibits work on the Web, describes the French attitude toward the Internet as “antiquated.” Castro argues that France’s approach to the Internet is at odds with those of other countries in the European Union, many of which favor the relatively laissez-faire attitude adopted by the United States. The French government, says Castro, “doesn’t have an open mind about a medium that allows people to speak their thoughts, and especially a medium that is beyond the government’s control.”

Though France’s Web law is largely toothless for now, Steinhardt cautions Americans to stay alert to developments in the battle over free speech in Europe. On July 1, France began its six-month presidency of the EU, a leadership position rotated among the member nations. French leaders could use the bully pulpit to advocate for changes in international Net regulations. Earlier this year, they called for Western states to support a global ban on Internet hate speech.

Though the U.S. Congress has proved willing to pass laws that restrict some online expression, Steinhardt credits the Clinton administration with standing firm against pressure from its allies to limit free speech. “I’m not always a fan of the American government,” he says, “but we’ve been a bulwark against creating an international system of censorship against political speech. Even things that are offensive are still protected under American laws—but France wants to make whatever speech it doesn’t like illegal.”