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France passed a law Monday that would enable the government to shut down websites without a court order. (Photo: Parti socialiste/flickr/cc)

French Website Shutdown Law Decried as Attack on Free Speech

Under new law, French authorities will have power to shut down websites without court order

Nadia Prupis

A new law enacted Monday in France will allow the government to shut down websites without a court order, in a move that officials say will help combat terrorism and child pornography but which civil liberties advocates warn threatens free speech rights.

The law, which has been under consideration for years, gained new traction after last month's attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in Paris. It implements provisions from two existing French laws—the Loppsi Act of 2011, which blacklists sites providing child pornography, and the Terrorism Act of 2014.

Under the new regulations, the government may order any internet service provider to shut down a website within 24 hours. Blocked websites will redirect to a landing page that explains why it was shut down and, in the case of child pornography websites, include a recommendation to seek medical help.

The cyber crime unit of the French police force will be devoted to identifying websites to be blocked, with the content subject to review by the force's anti-terrorism branch. The French data protection authority, the CNIL, will oversee the process.

Opponents of the law criticized the French government for its implementation, saying it side-steps the judicial process and gives authorities power to further crack "France's government needs to seriously think about whether this law will stop terrorists, or merely chill speech."
—Jillian York, Electronic Frontier Foundation
down on constitutional rights. Moreover, they say, it is not a good deterrent.

"With this decree establishing the administrative censorship for Internet content, France once again circumvents the judicial power, betraying the separation of powers in limiting what is the first freedom of all in a democracy—freedom of speech," said Felix Tréguer, co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, which promotes internet rights in France, adding that website blocking "is ineffective since it is easily circumvented."

"It is also disproportionate because of the risk of over-blocking perfectly lawful content, especially with the blocking technique retained by the Government," Tréguer said.

Days after world leaders marched in Paris to show solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and support the right to freedom of speech and the press, France arrested 54 people on charges of "glorifying" or "defending" terrorism.

On Monday, rights groups pointed to those arrests as evidence of how easily the new decree could be exploited in similar ways.

Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The Verge, "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."

French officials said the decree was a necessary proactive step. "Today, 90 percent of those who swing toward terrorist activities within the European Union do so after visiting the internet," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said last week after introducing the law. "We do not combat terrorism if we do not take measures to regulate the internet."

But some critics, like Tréguer, disagree that the law will be useful at all. "The measure only gives the illusion that the State is acting for our safety, while going one step further in undermining fundamental rights online," he said.

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