The dominoes may be beginning to tumble in the struggle between security and personal liberty, and the epicenter may be France as it responds to the recent attacks. Leaked documents from the Interior Ministry suggest that France might try to tighten the terrorist’s noose at the expense of personal freedom by banning Tor and blocking access to public Wi-Fi hotspots – all in the name of national security.
Though the proposals would only cover periods of declared emergencies, recent experience indicates that these repressive policies might linger. A mere tweak of the legislature’s collective nose immediately resulted in an extension of the current state of emergency to March 2016. And, as always with these things, one must be wary of government ”mission creep” that makes reversing a course or policy very difficult. But there are other considerations.
Public WiFi is not just the potential purview of terrorists. Blocking it would mean that many civilians, out and about during an emergency, would be denied vital information, including news of areas to avoid, closures, and directives detailing the nearest shelters. This a more cogent argument than it would seem could be made regarding banning Tor for the duration of an emergency. Yes, whistle blowers, activists, and journalists would be temporarily inconvenienced. After all, they could shortly resume their activities. The greater danger lies in the fact that once government encroaches, it is slow to retreat. There is also the risk of law enforcement manufacturing emergencies to gain the upper hand.
The French PM, Manuel Valls, seemed to consider these concerns when dismissing the alleged leaks as rumors, while at the same time hedging his bets. He stated that a “ban on Wi-Fi is not a course of action envisaged.” Valls also rejected calls to ban Tor, saying that he had not received requests from the police for such actions either, but then, as politicians are wont to do, he waffles a bit,
“The Internet is a freedom… an extraordinary means of communication between people. It is a benefit to the economy. It is also a means for terrorists to communicate and spread their totalitarian ideology. The police must take in all these aspects to improve their fight against terrorism, but the measures we take must be effective.”
The potentially repressive rhetoric is fraught with dangers if it goes beyond simple ruminations. The likelihood that other sympathetic, neighboring countries might follow suit would mean that people could not simply change the location of their communication. In fact, as each domino falls in the already fragile amalgamation that is the EU today, this issue packs a potential punch. It could be just another crack in the foundation of the Union, or the proverbial straw that breaks its back.
In either case, the result is unpalatable, for at the very least, the proposed measures move the EU closer to the situation that exists in China with its Great Firewall. Up until now, it is the only country to (semi) successfully block Tor. That France risks joining the paranoid regime is a dubious distinction indeed, for the country once thought a keystone of liberty and equality.