ARTICLE 19 is gravely concerned by a legislative proposal recently introduced in the French parliament, also known as the SREN Bill (the Bill). While presented as a framework to secure and regulate the digital space, the Bill contains various disconcerting provisions that present fundamental threats to human rights for internet users in France and beyond. Among them, it will mandate web browsers and domain name system (DNS) resolvers to block websites flagged by the government.
Put forward by the Council of Ministers, the Bill is an ambitious and complex proposal which aims to regulate online content in efforts to combat fraud, online harassment and to ensure the protection of minors from accessing online pornography, among many other goals. The Bill also includes the implementation provisions for the EU Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA).
Many provisions in the Bill, including the 24-hour deadline for hosting providers to remove child sexual abuse material flagged by law enforcement or the potential age verification on social media sites, raise alarm for the protection and promotion of freedom of expression online. These approaches have also been criticised for imposing restrictions that go beyond those stipulated by the DSA itself.
Among the numerous concerning provisions, Article 6 of the Bill stands out as particularly troubling. It requires DNS providers and web browsers to block any website that is blacklisted by the French government for alleged infringements on aspects of the Penal Code and Monetary and Financial Code. According to Article 6, the blocking can be ordered by the administrative authority. As recalled in previous instances, we note that a restriction as severe as website blocking should only be ordered by a court or similar independent and impartial body, consistent with the guarantees of a fair trial under international law.
DNS resolvers and web browsers work hand-in-hand to facilitate access over the internet. When a user enters a website’s domain name in their browser, the DNS provides the browser with the IP address where the website is located, so that the user can be reliably directed to the correct site. The wording in Article 6 does not specify the technical measures that should be used to block access. Instead, it imposes on these service providers a vague, indeterminate duty to ‘take all appropriate measures’. Due to the way the DNS functions, it is impossible to ensure that access to illegal content is blocked by the DNS resolver or browser in a targeted way. To comply with the Bill, these service providers would have no choice but to block access not only to the infringing content but to an entire domain name – essentially, an entire website – likely hampering access to content that is protected under international freedom of expression standards. As such, the rule is too vague and does not meet the legality principle under international human rights law.
‘This proposal is a dangerous threat to freedom of expression and right to information,” said Mehwish Ansari, Head of Digital at ARTICLE 19. “Even if particular content may be restricted under international law, blocking and filtering through the DNS or browser rarely, if ever, present a necessary or proportionate action. As it stands, this Bill fundamentally undermines freedoms that are guaranteed by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.’
Furthermore, if enacted, the Bill will have widespread implications. To comply, relevant global service providers would be forced to implement blocking mandates against all of their users, not only those located in France. Blocking at the browser-level particularly threatens the progress achieved in recent years, with the help of civil society advocates, toward better privacy preservation on the web, as browsers may be pushed to collect more browsing data to facilitate their compliance with blocking mandates.
This is not the first time the French government has attempted to implement overbroad restrictions to free speech online. In 2016, ARTICLE 19 submitted an amicus curiae brief to the French Conseil d’Etat, arguing that the government’s proposals to block websites that allegedly condone terrorism or distribute child sexual abuse material without a court order violated freedom of expression standards as they were overly vague and would have resulted in blocking protected content.
Efforts to address ‘online fraud’ and ‘cybercrime’ must strictly comply with the requirements of legality, legitimacy, necessity and proportionality. We often see vaguely formulated provisions which do not meet these requirements and which are abused by states to censor political or dissident speech.
‘This proposal gives the French government enormous, potentially extraterritorial power to censor websites without any clear judicial oversight or public accountability. This would be a major setback for freedom of expression online and set a dangerous precedent for censorship regimes around the world that are watching carefully,” said Mehwish Ansari. “The government should focus on more targeted and rights-respecting measures to combat fraud, including through improving law enforcement cooperation and public awareness.’
ARTICLE 19 urges the French parliament to work closely with experts in the technical community and civil society to revise the Bill and bring it in line with EU and international human rights standards.
ARTICLE 19 will continue to monitor developments and provide further analysis on additional concerning aspects of the Bill.
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