We had been noting, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, how the country that then held a giant “free speech” rally appeared to be, instead, focusing on cracking down on free speech at every opportunity. And target number one: the internet. Earlier this week, the Interior Minister of France — with no court review or adversarial process — ordered five websites to not only be blocked in France, but that anyone who visits any of the sites get redirected to a scary looking government website, saying:
You are being redirected to this official website since your computer was about to connect with a page that provokes terrorist acts or condones terrorism publicly.
“I do not want to see sites that could lead people to take up arms on the Internet,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
“I make a distinction between freedom of expression and the spread of messages that serve to glorify terrorism. These hate messages are a crime.”
Except… it already appears that France is really just censoring websites with messages it doesn’t like. In that first batch was a site called “islamic-news.info.” The owner of that site not only notes that he was never first contacted to “remove” whatever material was deemed terrorist supporting (as required by the law), but that nothing in what he had posted was supporting terrorism. He has written a public statement posted on the French news site Numerama, in which he makes it clear that he’s a one-man operation, and that he’s been doing everything based on a 50 euro/month hosting plan, and that he doesn’t support ISIS or Al Qaeda at all. His site is opinionated, but mostly just against current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. In fact, he notes that he specifically avoided topics that might be misinterpreted to suggest that he supported terrorists. He did not share ISIS propaganda or similar content. He even points out how he denounced a Syrian fighter who argued for attacks on Europe, saying that such things would reflect poorly on Muslims in Europe.
But, with no judicial review, no due process at all, the French government declared the site to be a terrorist supporter and now it’s gone.
All that talk about France and free speech quickly fade into nothing. As Glenn Greenwald, at the Intercept, points out in response to all of this, blatant government censorship is far more damaging than terrorist attacks (while also noting that governments around the globe are moving in similar directions):
In sum, far more damage has been inflicted historically by efforts to censor and criminalize political ideas than by the kind of “terrorism” these governments are invoking to justify these censorship powers.
And whatever else may be true, few things are more inimical to, or threatening of, Internet freedom than allowing functionaries inside governments to unilaterally block websites from functioning on the ground that the ideas those sites advocate are objectionable or “dangerous.” That’s every bit as true when the censors are in Paris, London, and Ottawa, and Washington as when they are in Tehran, Moscow or Beijing.
France’s “motto” is supposedly Liberté, égalité, fraternité. I have difficulty seeing how blatantly censoring websites you disagree with, without any sort of due process, fits with any of those three ideals.