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‘Easy access to illegal content’ likely to be curbed in France

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France wants to make it harder to access and punish illegal behaviour online, according to a text on securing and regulating the digital environment that lawmakers agreed in committee on Thursday evening (21 September).

Read the original French story here.

Adopted at first reading by the Senate on 27 June, the bill, presented by Digital Minister Jean-No?l Barrot on 10 May, was discussed this week by a special committee in the National Assembly.

“It is a text designed to ensure that the majority of people will no longer be able to easily access illegal content online,” Philippe Latombe, MP for the D?mocrate group (MoDem, centre), told Euractiv.

It will still be possible to use anonymisation software, such as a VPN, to continue surfing privately and circumvent the provisions of the text, he added.

The bill is indeed intended to be a “combat bill” against online illegality, Barrot said earlier.

Fighting scams and underage access to pornography

In the bill adopted in committee formation, MPs backed the minister’s proposal for an “anti-scam filter”, which would allow referencing search engines to display a warning message on users’ screens when they click on a fraudulent link.

They also backed the measure requiring pornographic websites to verify the majority of their users through a double anonymisation system.

But the tool is “fragile”, Aur?lien Tach?, an ecologist MP (NUPES), told Euractiv, adding that he “fears that it could be used to control the identity of citizens on the Internet”.

Combating cyberbullying

To combat cyberbullying, the bill’s rapporteur, Renaissance MP Paul Midy, proposed to require “identity verification for every account created on a social network” – but due to lack of support and potential unconstitutionality, Midy himself withdrew the amendment.

Democrat MP Louise Morel (MoDem) admitted that the amendment could not be adopted in its current form but told Euractiv that she was pleased that the debate had taken place and that she wanted to “do everything in [her] power to combat cyberbullying and the feeling of impunity online”.

To combat such behaviour, the text voted on Thursday evening provides for sanctions against “pack leaders” who launch harassment campaigns.

Combating online hate

People guilty of “obstructing abortion” could also be banned, said Morel, who is pleased to have introduced penalties for sexist and sexual abuse online.

But creating blanket fines for other illegal online content (particularly xenophobic, homophobic or racist content) poses a legal problem.

Erwan Balanant, a MoDem MP, told Euractiv that “MoDem MPs want to see the creation of a sexist and sexual offence on social networks”, believing that this would be effective and break the feeling of impunity.

However, “going further entails constitutional risks” for other online insults. The creation of blanket fines could lead to difficulties in interpreting the law and to a downgrading of interpretations, i.e. a reduction of the penalties already provided for in the law.

The idea is that the same penalties apply, whether online or offline.

Combating illegal websites

Under provisions agreed by MPs in committee formation, France’s national media regulator, Arcom, will have the power to delist non-compliant pornographic sites or foreign media outlets that are subject to international sanctions and disseminate misinformation.

Fighting American hyperscalers

MPs also decided to keep parts of the bill that focus on regulating the cloud computing market with the double aim of giving French companies the means to change their cloud provider at a lower cost while also minimising their dependence on American companies, nicknamed the hyperscalers (Amazon, Microsoft and Google).

But the text “does not go as far as it should to protect sensitive data from foreign companies”, said Tach?, who expressed disappointment that an amendment added in the Senate had not been retained in committee. It required for transparency on the environmental footprint of data centres.

Effective battles?

Regarding all these “combat” issues, Latombe believes that his colleagues’ intentions are positive but points out that the banning penalties will come up against technical difficulties.

Banning someone from the online world means banning an IP address – something which is relatively problematic if the IP address is shared by several people living in the same household and poses problems of effectiveness if the banned person uses another terminal.

What’s more, any restrictions on access will also come up against circumvention tools such as VPNs.

Raising awareness

Morel is pleased that awareness-raising courses have been added to the list of sanctions that judges can impose to make offenders aware of the need to respect others in the digital environment.

In the same vein, MP Violette Spillebout (Renaissance) welcomed the adoption of an amendment proposing that primary and lower secondary school pupils take the “PIX” certificate, which certifies their awareness of the correct use of digital tools.

Latombe also said he agreed with the need for digital hygiene lessons and called for them to be included in the school curriculum, along with moral and civic education.

Balanant explains that these issues will be detailed in the inter-ministerial plan to combat bullying and cyberbullying in schools next week.

The text will be presented to the National Assembly in an ordinary session on 3-4 October.

Read more with EURACTIV



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