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New draconian surveillance bill for France leaves tech firms furious

Government officials in France are readying to pass a new bill that seeks to bolster last December’s covertly-passed and highly controversial surveillance law.  Brought in surreptitiously on Christmas Eve (in the hope that nobody would notice), December’s law caused outrage among French privacy advocates and human rights activists alike, and as if that legislation was not enough, the French government has now drafted an even more intrusive bill which it hopes to pass as quickly, and with as little scrutiny, as possible – much to the disgust of citizens and tech firms alike.

According to Human Rights Watch the new bill (French)  is ‘inconsistent with France’s current international commitment to human rights,’ and should be ‘reconsidered and revised’ rather than rushed through parliament, lest it set a ‘highly damaging model’ which other countries could replicate.

Pointing out that the new legislation has a number of severely problematic areas, Human Rights Watch noted that some of the most serious flaws include,

Expansive powers for the prime minister to authorize surveillance for purposes far beyond those recognized in international human rights law; lack of meaningful judicial oversight; requirements for private service providers to monitor and analyze user data and report suspicious patterns; prolonged retention periods for some captured data; and little public transparency.

The most frighteningly intrusive part of the bill, however, is a requirement for ISPs to monitor data by installing what is being referred to as a ‘black box’ that uses algorithms to seek out ‘suspicious patterns’,

‘The bill’s requirement for service providers to install secret, unspecified, state-provided means of analyzing suspicious patterns – for example, visits to websites advocating terrorism, or contacts with persons under investigation – could potentially be applied to a virtually unlimited set of indicators.’

One worry is that once the black boxes are installed, ISPs will be easily coerced into using them to patrol for copyright breaches and infringements. After all, once the black boxes are in place it will suddenly be of negligible financial cost to use the algorithmic surveillance to do this, leaving ISPs with very little reason not to cooperate with copyright holders.

Furious at the prospect, leading French hosting companies have already threatened to take their business abroad, should the bill pass when it comes to a final vote on May 5th. Seven companies, including OVH, IDS, and Gandi have said (in an open letter (Google Translate) to the French prime minister Manuel Valls), that should the law pass the government will be in effect forcing them into de facto ‘exile’, arguing that being required to install real time data capture software would  ‘destroy a major segment of the economy,’ and if passed would leave them with no choice but to ‘move our infrastructure, investments, and employees where our customers will want to work with us.’

However, although French ISPs have made this threat, it is not clear exactly where they imagine that they will run to should the bill pass, considering that most European nations have some form of surveillance or another, and are all going in the same direction…  ever increasing the amount of surveillance legislation, rather than not.  The French companies claim that up to 40% of their business comes from foreigners who like France’s stronger (than most other European nations) protection for online privacy, so how these threats will come to fruition is anyone’s guess.

Human Rights Watch general council Dinah PoKempner sums the whole thing up best, and we support wholeheartedly her sentiments,

‘Though the goal of the bill is to place France’s surveillance practices under the rule of law, it in fact uses law to clothe a naked expansion of surveillance powers. France can do much better than this, especially if it wants to distance itself from the overreaching and secretive mass surveillance practices of the US and the UK that have attracted so many legal challenges.’

France has historically been a nation of pro-libertarians, and it would be a sad shame to see it fall prey to the kind of mentality that has got so many nations back-seating their own citizens rights for the sake of ‘safety through surveillance’. Yes, the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper-Cacher Supermarket were terrible, and loss of life is always shocking, but can we allow such attacks to slowly strip us of our Human rights?

Human Rights Watch claim that these surveillance plans were already in the making before either of those attacks took place, and if that is true then it certainly becomes a worry that those events could have been used as ‘false flags’ to help steer public opinion in France.  One can not help but be startled by the timing of the attacks, and the sudden implementation of these far reaching surveillance laws, and one can’t help asking the question… are we are being slowly led in one direction by the powers that be, with no choice or hope of fighting them?


Ray Walsh I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR and I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood and love to listen to trap music.

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