Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about the negative impact that a national security bill known as LOPPSI 2 could have on online free expression. The version of the bill that was passed by the Senate on first reading on 10 September envisages an ineffective and dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardise the work of journalists and bloggers.
Ineffective and dangerous filtering
Under the Senate-amended version of article 4 (on combating online porn and paedophile content), a government department called the Central Office for Combating Crime Related to Information and Communication Technology would be able to order Internet service providers and website hosts to filter websites without referring to a court.
Under the version of the bill adopted by the National Assembly (the lower house) on first reading in February, only a judge would be able to order website filtering. That was in line with a Constitutional Council ruling that Internet access must be regarded as fundamental freedom. But the Senate’s legal commission decided that only notification by an administrative authority was necessary and the article’s amendment was passed in an open session of the Senate on 8 September.
The effectiveness of online filtering has been disputed by many studies including one released by the French Federation of Telecom and Electronic Communications Companies in July 2009 entitled “Study of the Impact of Blocking Paedophile and Porn Sites.” Filtering mechanisms will not be able to prevent their circumvention by offenders, will not eliminate offending content from the Internet and will have no impact on the source of the problem.
And furthermore, they tend to filter out innocent content as well, such as the websites of child protection groups or sites that defend minors who have been the victims of sexual abuse.
At the same time, the financial and technical costs (including the risks of over-blocking and a loss of connection speed) are high. Attempts to set up online filtering systems in other countries have also shown that they are expensive and ineffective. During tests lasting several months in Australia, thousands of websites that had nothing to do with paedophilia were blocked. Germany finally abandoned a similar project after no more than 100 really paedophile and pornographic sites were identified out of a blacklist of 8,000 websites compiled by a government agency.
Reporters Without Borders deplores the Senate’s decision to dispense with referral to a judge and urges the National Assembly to reinstate it when the bill goes back for its second reading. It is essential that a judge should decide whether a website is illegal, just as it would be if a newspaper or magazine were involved. Automatic and systematic filtering by keywords that are secretly chosen by a government agency without any possible prior recourse would inevitably lend itself to abuses and could be regarded as censorship.
There is also a danger that, once a filtering system has been put in place, it could be used to target not only porn and paedophilia but also other questionable online activities such as gambling. And once the psychological threshold has been crossed, it could be extended to piracy, counterfeiting, defamation and even insulting the president. Filtering could end up being regarded as normal, and that would be wrong. The withdrawal of content at source by website hosts is a much more targeted and appropriate way to tackle online porn and paedophilia.
Use of spyware and combating identity theft
There are two other disturbing articles in this bill. One is article 23, which would allow the police, when they suspect criminal activity, to use remotely-introduced spyware under an investigating judge’s supervision to obtain information from computers without the knowledge of those targeted (see the release of 27 July 2009). If criminal activity of an unsuspected kind is discovered, the information obtained can still be used to bring a prosecution.
Journalists would be protected from of this kind of spyware by the law on the secrecy of journalists’ sources but bloggers and amateurs journalists would not.
Article 2, making identify theft online punishable by a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros, is the other problem. Its provisions are very broad and pose a serious threat to the widespread use of pseudonyms (because of the danger of being prosecuted for using another person’s pseudonym), to the use of false-identities and to the creation of profiles aimed as caricaturing or satirising well-known people.
Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by the current tendency of democratic states to step up online surveillance and controls. France’s DADVSI, HADOPI and LOPPSI laws and their British and Spanish equivalents reflect a growing mistrust that could pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and information.
The Senate adopted the LOPPSI 2 bill by 179 to 153 votes on 10 September after considering a total of 406 proposed amendments to the 40 articles of the version that was approved by the National Assembly in February. It is not yet known when it will go back to the National Assembly for its second reading.