Freedoms Online in France: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Paris, 28 February 2013 — Following an intergovernmental seminar on digital policy [fr], French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced a law “on the protection of digital rights and freedoms” for early 2014. While this announcement offers hope for the defense of freedoms online, recent statements made by members of the French government suggest it is not yet ready to break away from the repressive trend initiated by its predecessors.

The law announced by Jean-Marc Ayrault at the end of the intergovernmental seminar on digital policy alludes to a number of improvements regarding the protection of freedoms online, among which the possible legal protection of Net neutrality which is once again delayed (our translation):

If, once the National Digital Council (Conseil national du numérique) has expressed its opinion on Net neutrality, there appears to be a legal loophole in the protection of freedom of expression and communication on the Internet [then] the government will offer legislative dispositions.1

Unfortunately, the government seems to be reducing the stakes of freedom of expression online to that of Net neutrality protection. Yet, though the latter is of course crucial to preserve the universal architecture of the Internet, it is not enough in and of itself.

In the meantime, other announcements and statements by the government – such as the return of administrative filtering of websites, which was thought to be dead and buried2, the announced reform of the French 1881 law on freedom of the press to take into account the Internet's strike force [fr], and the calling into question of web hosting services' liability by members of the majority [fr] and the Pierre Lescure working group3 [fr] – show that the current French government is not ready to break away from the repressive policies of Nicolas Sarkozy's ministers.

“The government does as if Net neutrality was the sole issue at stake in the protection of freedom of expression online. In the meantime, we see a resurgence of the sarkozyst rhetoric of considering Internet a dangerous lawless zone4, which in turn justifies private polices or the return of administrative censorship. Under the guise of a law on freedoms online, which could bring real improvements, the French government is postponing a possible legislation on Net neutrality and bringing the issue of repressive measures back on the agenda.” declared Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesperson for citizen advocacy group La Quadrature du Net.

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  • 1. After the roundtable organized in January in response to customer access restrictions by Free (French ISP), Fleur Pellerin, the French Minister for the Digital Economy, had committed to announcing at the end of February [fr] the government's intention to legislate or not on Net neutrality, based on the National Digital Council's opinion.
  • 2. The French government's commitment that an “independent control will be created for the measures of administrative filtering or blocking” (our translation) alludes to a return of LOPPSI, the French law of orientation and programmation for internal security performance allowing administrative blocking in the name of tackling child abuse content online
    Source: [fr]
  • 3. Pierre Lescure (former CEO of Canal +, a major TV station owned by Universal) is currently leading a working group advising the French government on the future of Hadopi, the French "three strikes" agency
  • 4. A “zone de non-droit”. In 2011, after a political scandal was revealed on the Internet and by WikiLeaks' revelations, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government described the Internet as a lawless zone to regulate, in order to justify repressive measures. On 7 February 2013, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French Minister of Women's Rights and spokesperson for the Ayrault government, used the same words during a debate in the upper house of the French Parliament.
    Source: [fr]