The APC European Internet Rights Project
Country Report France
by Martine Paulet
13 million people are now connected in France. The country made up for lost time and got ready to enter the Internet of the new millennium.
In 1997, the process started of PAGSI (Programme dAction du Gouvernement pour la Société de lInformation), i.e. Government Action Programme for the Information Society. Yet France has actually been interconnected to the Internet since 1988. People have been, and still are, accessing it using Minitel, a popular French teletext service created to provide text data in the 1970s.
Availability of Internet accessRecently, both connection costs and computer prices have decreased a lot and the French government is promoting the widest possible Internet access through its PAGSI project. ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) high-speed connections are being introduced. From 1st January 2001 the implementation of the European directive on telecommunications should bring competitiveness among telecom operators.
France will continue as well to extend Internet access in schools and in open public places. Availability is also being improved for disabled people.
Position of Internet Service ProvidersInternet users highlight two main criteria for choosing their ISP : connection facilities and speed of access to the Internet. Costs remain another criterion, but is rated far behind quality of delivery. Nonetheless there are now ca. 25 free ISPs available in France.
ISP responsibility is a big issue. The Bloche bill, dated May 1999, introduced enough ambiguity to convict ISPs over web content. Consequently Yahoo was convicted in November 2000 for allowing links to websites selling Nazi memorabilia. Yahoo.fr must now screen and avoid giving access to such sites.
Because ISPs can be considered responsible for web content, they have to register carefully sites owners according to item 1135 of Civil Code (names, addresses and especially nationality). Some lawyers claim that French law on this is not consistent with European legislation regarding the definition of Internet intermediaries.
On this responsibility issue, the Member of Parliament, Christian Paul, is calling for the creation of a forum on democracy rights and co-regulation of the Internet. This should go live during the first half of 2001.
The AFA association (Association des Fournisseurs dAccès), an Internet Service Providers Association, is taking part in a governmental process to define the role of ISPs.
Degree of Internet censorshipArticle 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights on freedom of expression is fully included in the French constitution. Such a freedom is one of its founding principles.
Limits to this freedom concern: defamation, insults, incitement to racial hatred and paedophilia. Legal action can be taken over these. Public protection, including particularly the under-age population, is regarded as a priority by the French government. Justice decisions can be published online (cf. PAGSI).
Censorship can also be used over matters concerning public defence and security data. Also, public authorities carefully monitor sensitive sectors such as energy, transportation or water. A monitoring centre will be in charge of prevention and assistance.
However, MP Christian Paul is calling for a limitation on "Internet policemen". He insists that democracy really has to be respected, and the state should not control everything.
Internet privacy issuesThe right of privacy is implicit in the French constitution. Any attempt to interfere with private life is liable to law. The European directive for protecting private life, dated 1998, is at the moment in a transposition process. One of PAGSIs priorities is the improvement of security and the increase of confidence in cyberspace. This presupposes protecting networks against intrusions and fraud and protecting various forms of privacy, and also providing a protective framework for exchanging data while guaranteeing individual freedoms.
That is the reason why encryption use has been legalised in January 1999. People can secure their private life up to 128 bits.
Nonetheless, there is a lack of tools to detect illegal intrusions. Very few websites can detect attacks perpetrated. Therefore Internet connection data might be stored in order to help criminal investigations.
IRIS (Imaginons un Réseau Internet Solidaire), in considering Internet rights issues concerning technical actions, called, in April 1999, for the suppression of the STIC system (Système de Traitement des Infractions Constatées). The STIC project integrates all existing police files and adds to them any piece of information about individuals. This kind of information constitutes a serious risk to private life protection.
The CNIL agency (Commission Nationale de lInformatique et des Liberté), i.e. the National Commission on Computers and Civil Liberties which monitors powers, gives the right to any individual to access and demands correction to personal data. The Courts can fine any violation. The CNIL encourages the development of self-regulation of the players, where any conflicts between democracy and the French states development of its IT activities can be raised.
Workers rightsSome workers organisations, like UNI (Union Network International), are calling for free Internet access for workers, trade-unions and social committees within their companies. They are asking for company websites or Intranet pages in order to inform workers. They are strongly protesting against email and website monitoring.
They have been creating external websites which can be visited by anybody and that often criticise and cause bad advertising for companies. But, so far, only 20 French companies have negotiated Internet/Intranet trade-unions rights.
PAGSI is willing to develop such rights to benefit the Information Society.
Content risksOn ISP responsibility for web content, Réseau Voltaire (association for freedom and secularism) in December 2000 highlighted differences between European member-states.
France has decided that web content is to be considered as continuous publishing. Newspaper and media publishing has a prescription notice of three months, according to item 65 of an 1881 law on press freedom. Online content authors can be sued at any time. This means French law has two different approaches and this is being much criticised.
Domain namesThe use of .fr is a way to promote and boost the Internet in France. This also provides much credibility for such websites. Nonetheless registration costs still remain very high.
The AFNIC association (Association Française pour le Nommage Internet en Coopération) allocates such addresses and manages them for the international association ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). In July 2000, 90,000 .fr domain names have been registered by the AFNIC. But the democratic vote organised to elect its members in September 2000 has not been a success.
As a conclusion, France with its PAGSI project will pursue the adaptation of its law so that there are no gaps between criminal, civil and business laws. Case law will reinforce those legal tools.
The country is now in a good position among European Union member-states in the process of implementing public service procedures online. France, during its presidency of the European Union, added cybercrime into the e-europe inititave.
It will integrate the Internet more and more in order to guarantee freedom of communication, widen its access to the French population and protect private life and security.
However, the balance between democracy and liberalism remains a challenge. The next Internet festival in March 2001 will probably tell us more about these issues.
Paris, 15 January 2001
SourcesCAIA n°64, "e-société", December 2000
Libération, "Le Net prend perpet", Marie-Joelle Gros, 07/12/2000
Le Monde, "La Révolte des syndicats",15/12/2000
Code Pénal, Dalloz, 1996-1997