• Population: 59,850,000
  • Internet users: 21,901,000 (2003)
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 11 euros
  • DAI*: 0.72
  • Situation**: middling

Fierce controversy greeted the Law on the Digital Economy (LEN) that the government finally pushed through parliament on 13 May 2004. The law is a pioneer statement of Internet rights and contains alarming threats to freedom of expression.

France is making up for its tardy adoption of the Internet and will soon be one of the world's most connected-up countries. The gap is widening however between the 50 per cent of the population with no access to the Internet and the more than 3.5 million who have high-speed access.

The major decisions on Internet freedom of expression and message privacy are being taken at European level (see chapter on European Institutions). But France is one of the most reluctant European Union member-states to incorporate them into its own laws.

The Internet in France is thus still subject to laws passed in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks when fear of terrorism persuaded MPs to grant the state wide powers of surveillance at the expense of civil liberties.

Emergency measures still in force

The Law on Everyday Security (LSQ) which was rushed through parliament on 15 November 2001 with virtually no discussion and approved almost unanimously, extended to a year the minimum period ISPs must keep a record of their customers' Internet activity and e-mail messages.

The law allows judges to use "secret methods that cannot be revealed for reasons of national defence" to decode e-mail messages and requires encryption firms to hand over their codes so the authorities can read the messages. Freedom of expression campaigners protested against such hasty passage of a measure that had not been discussed or negotiated and which threatened the principle of confidentiality of professional and private communications.

Another measure, the Internal Security Policy and Planning Law (LOPSI), passed on 31 July 2002, allows police detectives to make remote online searches of ISPs with prior court permission and have "direct access to data considered necessary to establish the truth." The law was strengthened by the Internal Security Law (LSI) adopted by parliament on 18 March 2003 at the behest of interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Courts discuss the responsibility of hosts

A poster advertising firm, Métrobus, sued an Internet host, Ouvaton, in November 2003 to force it to stop hosting stopub.ouvaton.org, the website of an anti-advertising group that defaces ads in the Paris metro (railway) system, and to reveal the addresses of the those running the site. A court ordered the data to be handed over to Métrobus but said Ouvaton should only give out such information if told to by a court and not at the simple request of a private company. Despite handing over the information, Ouvaton was sued again by Métrobus, who said the information was useless. The case was dismissed on 26 January 2004.

The Law on the Digital Economy

The Law on the Digital Economy (LEN), passed by the French parliament on 13 May 2004, threatens free expression online and has sparked outrage from press freedom and civil liberties organisations.

Its especially alarming article 2 says Internet service providers (ISPs) are responsible for the content their customers post online and can be prosecuted unless they move quickly to block access once made aware of material that breaks the law. This means the ISP is obliged to judge its legality and then possibly block access to it.

Internet experts say the ISPs, who oppose the law, will be pressured into blocking access to any possibly illegal material for fear of prosecution, with the ISP chief facing up to a year in prison and a 75,000 euros fine.

Defenders of the LEN counter that ISPs are protected by an offence, included in the law, of improper complaint against a website, punishable by a year in prison and a 15,000 euros fine.

But these decisions will still effectively be made by private companies unqualified to rule on the legality of a site's content. Socialist MP Christian Paul noted that the law "in fact, if not legally, transfers a ruling that should be made by a court to a technical intermediary."

Another criticised aspect of the LEN is abolition of the "private correspondence" definition of e-mail. Laws about e-mail are necessary, especially in the fight against spam, but this abolition is a drastic step likely to undermine the confidentiality of e-mail. In trying to combat pirating of music and films, the law removes an important defence against surveillance of e-mail. Socialist MP Patrick Bloche warned that from now on "anything goes" while the battle against piracy had not clearly been won.

A perverse amendment was made to the law at the last moment, at the request of industry minister Patrick Devedjian, changing the time limit for prosecution for online content, to make it three months after offending material had been removed from a website instead of the hitherto three months after it had been posted there (as stipulated by the press law). A webmaster can thus be sued for material that is years old.

The amendment was proposed by Sen. René Trégoüet, who until then had a good record of defending freedom of expression. The only exception was that for material published in both the traditional media and online, the prosecution limit will remain three months after publication.

The amendment was aimed at stopping people posting libellous material online and blocking access to it for three months (by preventing its indexing by search engines, for example) and then revealing it after the three-month prosecution limit had expired. But this rarely occurs and most defamation is linked to current events. By wanting to avert an unlikely risk, the senator created a much bigger threat to freedom of expression.

Lionel Thoumyre, of France's Forum of Internet Rights, says "the problem of material reappearing could just as easily have been dealt with by a court." A judge could rule that the date of publication of an article was when it was made available to the public and not when it was posted online.

The amendment, which challenges the legal edifice built around the 1881 press law, needs to be thoroughly debated and should not have been passed as just another amendment to an already very controversial law. It was condemned by the French Syndicat de la presse magazine et d'information (SPMI) and the webmasters' Groupement des éditeurs de services en ligne (Geste). Socialist and communist MPs have referred the law to the Constitutional Council for an opinion.

Responsibility for posted links?

The Internet Rights Forum, a government-funded advisory body, ruled on 23 October 2003 that those who added links on webpages to sites with illegal content or damaging to third parties were not automatically as responsible for it as those who created it. The degree depended on how much approval they expressed for the linked content, but it urged site designers to check the legality of linked sites beforehand.

Filters in schools

The government announced measures on 11 February 2004 to "protect minors from unsuitable" online material" by supplying all schools with filters to block websites through their IP identification number or domain name.

The Dieudonné case

Several websites which had declared their support for a comedian called Dieudonné, who was involved in a row about anti-Semitism, were targeted in late February 2004 by hackers who blocked access for a day to the servers of levillage.org, a technical site hosting several websites supporting him. The host said the hackers had first sent e-mail threats. This type of hacking, which is technically simple, allows people to personally censor material they do not like and is a serious threat to freedom of expression.


* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.


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