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French Legislators Rebuked for Seeking to Criminalize Online Browsing

Court Ruled Provision Was Too Restrictive of Freedoms

A woman holds her smart phone which displays the Google home page, in this picture illustration taken February 24, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

France’s legislators have again been reminded that imprisoning people who look at websites perceived as glorifying or inciting terrorism is not acceptable in a democratic society – not least because France already has an extensive legal arsenal to go after those using the internet to incite violence.

For the second time this year, France’s Constitutional Council has struck down a recent amendment to the penal code criminalizing what is termed “regular consultation” of websites deemed to be, “inciting or glorifying terrorism.” The provision, which carried a two-year prison sentence and a €30,000 fine, was found unconstitutional because it unjustifiably restricted freedom of communication.

The court added that French law enforcement agencies had enough powers to tackle terrorism without this provision.

The court’s reasoning is a welcome respite from France’s rush to adopt restrictive counterterrorism measures at the cost of rights and freedoms. The problematic provision was initially introduced in a 2016 law making the regular consultation of websites deemed to contain material glorifying or inciting terrorism an offence – unless those websites were consulted in good faith, for research or professional reasons with the aim of informing the general public. The vague definition of the offence, along with the lack of guidelines about what constituted legitimate research purposes, increased the likelihood of a chilling effect on legitimate forms of expression and sharing information.

For example, one of France’s leading public research centers, the National Center for Scientific Research (known under its French acronym CNRS), even asked its researchers whose work led them to consult such websites to provide them with their names and coordinates to be able to defend them in case the police launched any investigation. The head of the CNRS’s social science institute noted that the law was, “dangerous for researchers.”

When the Constitutional Council first deemed the provision unconstitutional in February this year, instead of effectively addressing the court’s reasoning, French lawmakers tried to circumvent the ruling by adding a few words to the provision and adopting it again. Lawyers and French human rights organizations, the Ligue des droits de l’Homme and the Quadrature du Net, challenged the constitutionality of this barely modified provision, and today won, again.

The court has underlined that merely looking at websites or holding a certain heinous ideology does not justify loss of liberty. Let’s hope that the French legislators take the time now to understand and respect the court’s reasoning.

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