And on it goes. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, much of the world rallied around a French magazine’s free speech right to publish controversial text and images concerning Islam, a major world religion. Since that solidarity was expressed, France has strategically sought to undermine its own support of free expression through some of the most arcane law enforcement actions concerning speech to date. From arresting comedians, to threats against news organizations, all the way to stepping into the muck with a bunch of racist idiots, France has shown that it’s not a country that defends free and open speech — but rather one that only defends the speech with which it agrees. But if any of that troubled you, you may be disappointed to learn that it was only the precursor to a full on attack on free speech on the internet.
President Francois Hollande said Tuesday in Paris the government will present a draft law next month that makes Internet operators “accomplices” of hate-speech offenses if they host extremist messages. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he will travel to the U.S. to seek help from the heads of Twitter Inc. (TWTR) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) as well as Google and Facebook. Spokesmen for the companies did not immediately return requests for comment.
It’s exactly the wrong move on France’s part. What was once a rallying moment for Western values and open speech has now devolved into a full-on attempt to censor speech online. If this law passes, internet services will have no choice but to seek to proactively censor all sorts of speech just to avoid liability. It’s the exact opposite of the systems and policies that made the internet such a welcome home to free expression.
It would be one thing if any part of this plan made even the least bit of sense, which it doesn’t, but where this gets really stupid is in the strategic impact this would have were it to be put in place. Extremists that have since gathered online will now be pushed back into places where they cannot be so easily monitored. What was essentially a honeypot of sorts will be neutered. How does that make even the smallest amount of sense, even throwing aside the horrific implications this has on France’s willingness to censor speech it does not care for?
Add to that the purely hamfisted attempt to label innocent service providers as “accomplices” under the shade of a recent terror attack, and you might think this couldn’t get any more cynical. You’d be wrong.
Hollande, speaking at a Paris memorial for Jews deported during World War II, said he would discuss a crackdown on racist and extremist Internet posts with global leaders at a ceremony at Auschwitz, Poland, on Tuesday as they meet to commemorate the death camp’s liberation 70 years ago. At last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Hollande called on Internet companies to help identify and shut down illegal content. France has laws against making racist statements or denying the Holocaust.
Just so everyone is clear, the victims of a Nazi book-burning and speech-restricting regime are being propped up as a rallying point for the further restriction of speech and writing. That goes beyond hubris and enters the realm of the bizarrely cruel. France has a problem on its hands: speech is under attack by Islamic extremists. The answer to that cannot be the attack of other forms of speech. All that does is lend credibility to the enemy’s wishes. Why would France want to do that?