France plans to boost internet censorship to combat online fraud

 Close-up shot of Emmanuel Macron, France's president, during the NATO summit on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Close-up shot of Emmanuel Macron, France's president, during the NATO summit on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

DNS providers and web browsers could be forced to block websites flagged by authorities in France under a new proposed law.

Currently pushed through parliament, the so-called SREN Bill comes as a way to regulate online content and tackle issues like digital fraud, online harassment, and minors' access to pornography.

Despite being motivated by legitimate concerns, experts deemed the Bill as a "dangerous slippery slope." Granting the French government greater website blocking powers will create further censorship technical capabilities, they warn, while setting up a worrying precedent that threatens the open internet.

France's SREN Bill

"In a well-intentioned yet dangerous move to fight online fraud, France is on the verge of forcing browsers to create a dystopian technical capability," wrote Mozilla, the company behind Firefox, in a blog post.

France's worrying bills

It isn't the first time France made headlines in recent months for proposing some controversial regulations.

▶ Also introduced into Parliament in July, France's justice reform bill seeks to grant police power to spy on citizens through phones.

▶ At the same time, President Macron is also pushing to allow social media shutdowns when the platforms failed to quickly delete hateful content during riots under the new Digital Service Act.

Especially troubling, Article 6 of the Bill will require DNS resolvers and web browsers to block any website blacklisted by the French government for alleged infringements.

Yet, according to experts, this opens up a series of controversies to both privacy and freedom of expression.

"Such a move will overturn decades of established content moderation norms and provide a playbook for authoritarian governments that will easily negate the existence of censorship circumvention tools," warned Mozilla.

Web browsers currently use malware and phishing protection software like Google's Safe Browsing and Microsoft's SmartScreen to notify users of these threats. These systems, though, leave the ultimate decision to users of whether or not to access a potentially dangerous site.

The SREN Bill is focused on blocking instead, but it seems to lack provisions to prevent this feature from being employed for other purposes.

"Forcing browsers to create capabilities that enable website blocking at the browser level is a slippery slope," said Mozilla.

"While it might be leveraged only for malware and phishing in France today, it will set a precedent and create the technical capability within browsers for whatever a government might want to restrict or criminalize in a given jurisdiction forever."

See more

Privacy advocates at Article 19 raised further concerns over an overall negative impact on people's data privacy. They believe, in fact, that in order to comply with the new requirements, browsers may be pushed to collect more browsing data.

Even worse, greater censorship powers will also be a hard blow to both users' and content creators' freedom of expression with commentators fearing that browsers may need to implement blocking mandates also to those users located outside France's borders.

"Even if particular content may be restricted under international law, blocking and filtering through the DNS or browser rarely, if ever, present a necessary or proportionate action," said Mehwish Ansari, Head of Digital at ARTICLE 19, in an official statement. "As it stands, this Bill fundamentally undermines freedoms that are guaranteed by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights."

Ansari also warns that the Bill will give the French government "enormous, potentially extraterritorial power to censor websites without any clear judicial oversight or public accountability."

Both Mozilla and Article 19 call the French government to reconsider these provisions, in favor of safer solutions such as improving the existing mechanisms already utilized by browsers as well as better public awareness.

Mozilla urges everyone to sign their petition to halt the "accelerated" parliamentary procedure which is set to vote on the Bill (introduced just right before the summer break, on July 5) as early as this fall.