France Considers Ways to Deal With Problematic Online Content, While Preserving Free Speech

Fayçal Benhassain | December 20, 2016 | 8:34pm EST
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(AP Photo/Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

Paris ( – Two French senators have introduced an initiative aimed at creating an ombudsman to make rulings on whether online material is inappropriate and should be removed, while at the same time aiming to preserve free speech.

“There is a lot of content freely accessible,” Senator Nathalie Goulet said during a meeting to discuss the plan, “Some is about radicalization and other about pedophilia. Who decides when content is legal or not?”

Goulet and another senator, Olivier Cadic, are promoting legislation which, if adopted by parliament after presidential elections next year, aims to help internet service providers, web hosting and social media companies to determine whether the content they publish is legal or not.

The proposal is for an ombudsman to be appointed for a six-year period from among members of an independent administrative regulatory body that is tasked with ensuring that data privacy law is applied to the collection, storage, and use of personal data.

Internet companies will be encouraged to seek the ombudsman’s opinion when in doubt about material to be published.

A company that wants to consult the ombudsman will have to get in touch by email or regular mail, asking about the content in question.

The ombudsman, who may work with a translator if the material is in another language, will provide an opinion in a maximum of seven days. The response will be based on the law but will be an opinion only, with no obligation that it must be followed.

The ombudsman will not be legally liable for opinions given, if lawsuits are brought later.

“We think that with an ombudsman it will be easier and faster to see it if content or websites are illicit,” Goulet said.

Prof. Séraphin Alava, an expert in radicalization at the University of Toulouse, said, “dissemination of certain information on the Internet can lead to radicalization. This, in my opinion, justifies the idea of an ombudsman who will be reachable easily, to judge content.”

Audrey Herblin-Stoop, head of public policy at Twitter France, acknowledged that “terrorist organizations use our platform to spread terrorist messages” and attempt to brainwash people.

She told the meeting that Twitter has blocked 260,000 “terrorist accounts.”

Google France welcomed the ombudsman proposal.

“It is a hard work to find illicit content quickly and get rid of it,” said Thibault Guiroy, the company’s public policy manager and head of government relations.

Dan Shefet, a French lawyer specializing in international law, intellectual property, IT and competition laws, has been working with Goulet to set up the legislation.

“In France,” he explained, “Internet intermediaries, such as internet access providers, web hosting companies and social media, can be held responsible for content.”

One way to avoid lengthy law suits would be to have experts tell the companies which content they should eliminate. The difficulties are faced mainly by small and mid-sized Internet companies which cannot afford to have round-the-clock legal advice on content.

Shefet warned of the risk of suppressing content just to avoid potential legal problems, however.

“The risk is to limit freedom of expression and that is why an ombudsman could be very helpful to all Internet players,” he concluded.

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