Sarkozy (left) wants to censor the Internet. Picture by Sergey Guneyev, from www.kremlin.ru.
In the wake of an Islamist-inspired shooting spree that left seven dead in southern France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a brave new world of Internet surveillance and criminalisation: treating them the same way as people who access child pornography, he has said that 'habitual' viewers of sites that promote terrorism, violence, and 'hate' should be subject to imprisonment. It marks a bold new foray into widespread monitoring of online activity, and seems aimed at appearing 'tough' on jihadis and neo-Nazis who may seek to strike in the future.
Punishing those who repeatedly view sites that promote terrorism is clear-cut enough: you either endorse terrorist activities or you don't. But what defines a 'hate' site, exactly? We've seen in the UK how widely that particular net can be cast. It can be anything, from physical violence and verbal abuse to asking to be put with people you can actually work with in a science lesson. Or even not liking the taste of curry, by some insane standards (yes, that example is true - it comes from the National Children's Bureau, and you can read their 366-page epic novel, or, as they call it, 'guidance,' here). So will people now be banned from viewing this site, because I say that saag is one of the most disgusting foods invented by man? That sounds ludicrous. But, if Sarkozy's proposed e-law was implemented here on top of existing legislation, it would actually be perfectly possible. As that report reminds us, the definition of a racist hate crime in the UK is:
'..any incident that is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person'Where the
'...intent and perception of the perpetrator are irrelevant.'That means exactly what it says. Namely, that anything is racist if someone says so. Such a subjective definition writ large online is a recipe for disaster; not only would all manner of sites - including national newspapers - be walking a legal tightrope every day, but poor little blogs and private sites wouldn't stand a chance if someone took offence at their content - even if the accusations were, by any non-childish standards, baseless. This would be enough to constitute a hate crime, even though it doesn't say anything remotely offensive about Muslims in the slightest (for the sceptics: re-read it. It doesn't. 'Fundamentalists' aren't all Muslims, and only a tiny, unknown percentage of Muslims in the UK live in the ghettoes I'm referring to), and anyone who read this blog after its publication would now be up for a fine or a prison sentence. Why they read it wouldn't be taken into account. For instance, I read a handful of the anti-Islam blogs in this country on occasion, to keep an eye on that ghetto situation I mentioned earlier (festering pools of fundamentalist hate really grind my gears). Do I agree with them? No. I don't do identity politics, especially of the 'my kind is better than your kind' variety. It's just playground antics played out on a grand scale, albeit with more destructive consequences. But they are one of the best place to go for raw information on that subject: information which, were visiting them banned, no-one would have access to.
Then there's the matter of how the police would know who's visiting what and when. Lucie Morillon, of Reporters Without Borders (a group which already has France on its concern list) fears the new Internet surveillance system that will be necessary to make this law viable. The law also makes a ready assumption that a visitor to such a website not only agrees with its content, but wants to commit illegal acts. Laws which assume are dangerous things. The French government itself has no idea how the law would actually work; neither Sarkozy's office nor the Ministry of Justice have thus far offered any details. But, should it come to pass: be afraid. Be very afraid.