Freedom of Expression or Right to Legal Action?

PARIS (04/05/2000) - There have been no half-measures in the reaction of French Internet rights group IRIS to the vote that took place in the French National Assembly on March 23 approving an amendment proposal to the French freedom of communication law that the group calls "death of the Internet in France."

IRIS takes issue with two of the amendments provisions, which the group said will, in effect, surround "the supermarket with barbed wire."

One provision is a modification of the wording of a clause of the law, in effect since May 1999, which exempts any Web hosting service provider from liability for any illicit information on the sites they host, except when they create that information themselves or refuse to shut the site down after legal action is taken. The amendment voted on March 23 added, "or if, having received a notice from a third party claiming that the content they are hosting is illicit and damages them, they do not take appropriate action."

According to Meryem Marzouki, president of IRIS, the amendment means self-censorship for service providers. It also means goodbye to freedom of expression and the departure of many Web sites to foreign hosting services, where Internet users will be beyond the reach of the French law.

Jean-Christophe Le Toquin of the AFA, the French Internet Service Providers' Association, does not share Marzouki's analysis. "The courts may impose site closings for a while, but we have the resources to establish standard procedures to deal with disputes without caving into excessive demands," he said.

The other amendment measure decried by IRIS forces host providers to "make sure that identification requirements are respected" by their users. The users, if nonprofessionals, have the option of giving out only their screen names to other users but have to provide detailed identification information to the host. The penalty on users for not complying with these rules is a possible six-month jail term and a 7,628 euro (US$7,355) fine.

Under the amendment, users still bear responsibility for giving truthful identification information to host providers. But the providers are also liable for illegal content the users transmit if the providers have not taken precautions to ensure that the users have divulged identity information according to the law.

The idea is good, the AFA acknowledges, but impracticable.

"The bill does not specify how hosts can make sure that users respect their obligation to give information out," said Christiane Féral-Schuhl, an attorney, "Yet, it is imperative to know the identities of the authors of illicit information in order to respect the fundamental rights of legal action. It is probable that the issue will be discussed in court."

This is exactly what both the AFA and IRIS -- despite their differences of opinion -- would like to avoid, and so they are both lobbying for the Senate to modify the amendment before it passes definitively into law.

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