In the wake of a horrific rampage, in which Mohamed Merah (now dead after a 32-hour standoff with police) reportedly murdered three French soldiers, three young Jewish schoolchildren, and a rabbi, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has begun calling for criminal penalties for citizens who visit web sites that advocate for terror or hate. “From now on, any person who habitually consults Web sites that advocate terrorism or that call for hatred and violence will be criminally punished,” Sarkozy was reported as saying.
Apart from the obvious flaws in Sarkozy’s plan–users, can, of course, use anonymizing tools to view the material or simply access it from a variety of locations to avoid appearing as “habitual” viewers–there are numerous other reasons to be concerned about criminalizing access to information.
First, there’s no guarantee that criminalizing access to hate speech or terrorist content will end the very real problems of hate crime and terrorism. Extremist violence didn’t start with the Internet and it won’t end with it, either.
Second, who defines “hate speech”? In France, that definition includes Holocaust denial, which in the past resulted in Yahoo! discontinuing auctions of Nazi memoribilia (the collectors of which are not, by any stretch, all sympathizers). And negative comments about France’s Muslim community have also resulted in criminal penalties, most notably in the case of actress Brigitte Bardot, who has been convicted five times for “inciting racial hatred.” While Holocaust denial and comments about Muslims such as those made by Bardot may be deplorable, they should not be criminal.
Finally, while Sarkozy is not–yet–calling for websites to be blocked, it wouldn’t be a stretch; after all, France already offers mechanisms for blocking child pornography and “incitement to terrorism and racial hatred.” If Sarkozy were to decide censorship is the answer, one major risk would be overblocking: there’s nary a country in the world that censors the Internet without collateral damage (in Australia, for example, testing on a would-be censorship regime found the site of a dentist blocked, among others).
EFF has serious concerns about the implications of Sarkozy’s comments. When a democratic country such as France decides to censor or criminalize speech, it is not just the French that suffer, but the world, as authoritarian regimes are given easy justification for their own censorship. We urge French authorities to judge crime on action, not expression.