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France16 February 2007

Censorship fears over new online ethics commission

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern about a draft decree creating an “ethical commission for online communication services”, which it said provides powers that are too wide-ranging and above all poorly defined. The decree, proposed by the Ministry of Finance and Industry and initially planned for the protection of children, could be adopted by the government within the next few days.

“The body created by this decree is not solely consultative, since it will be able to award and withdraw approval of online communications, including from hosts of websites and blogs, Internet service providers and mobile phone operators,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

“We consider that the limits to the jurisdiction of the commission, the members of which are all nominated by the prime minister, are not defined clearly enough. We fear it will push services providers into wrongly censoring their content to protect their approval. We repeatedly said during the debate on the Law on confidence in the digital economy (LCEN) that it is dangerous to make service provides responsible for regulating the content to which they provide access. We understand the importance of protecting minors from dangerous content, but it seems to us that this law goes way beyond this issue and we stress the perverse effects of this ruling, that the government appears to wish to urgently adopt.”

The draft decree relates to “online communications services to the public”, a vague formulation which includes providers of technical Internet services and mobile phone services, but does not say whether online news websites will also be included. In its Article 1, the decree specifies that it is aimed at protecting “minors” and guaranteeing “respect for human dignity”, extremely broad concepts which are not defined any more clearly in the rest of the text.

The commission will be able to withdraw its approval from any communications service which does not comply with the ethical principles which it lays down. It will hang a sword of Damocles over these companies, who will be tempted to delete any content which puts them at risk of losing their seal of quality.

The 23 members of this commission are nominated for five years. They will be made up of: a member of the State Council, a judge from the Court of Cassation; representatives of the Justice, Interior, Communications, Education, Culture, Technology and Information and Family ministries; seven user representatives and seven representatives of the online communications services profession.

The organisation Imagine an Internet Solidarity Network (IRIS) said in a statement on 14 February that the mission and the prerogatives of this new government body appeared to be similar to the main points of Article 15 of the 1996 law on Telecommunications Regulations which was condemned by the Constitutional Council.

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The draft law (in french) - january 2007

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