French members of parliament (MPs) have voted to give the government extra powers to block online communications when the country is under a “state of emergency.”
The French National Assembly today passed Amendment 50, which sees the following paragraph included in the legislation [Google Translate used]:
“II. – Minister of the Interior may take any measure to ensure the interruption of any online public communication service causing the commission of acts of terrorism or which glorify.”
Existing legislation already allowed for the control of various media channels, including radio broadcasts, movie screenings, and theater performances. The powers aren’t automatically enabled when a state of emergency is declared, however authorities can specifically call for such censorship if it’s deemed necessary.
With the advent of the Internet Age, it seems current control mechanisms aren’t enough, and the National Assembly referred to the Internet as being the “preferred vehicle of radical Islamism and jihadism.”
Technology and terrorism
It’s been a frenetic week in France and across Europe in the wake of the terrorist attacks that left 129 people dead and many more wounded in Paris last Friday. France immediately declared a state of emergency, or “etat d’urgence,” following the atrocities — this has been extended to three months.
France’s state of emergency measures stem from a 1950s law that was drawn up around the Algerian war of Independence, and are designed for situations that present “imminent danger resulting from serious breaches of public order, or in case of events threatening, by their nature and gravity, public disaster.”
The law basically gives authorities additional powers, including the authority to restrict the movement of people, curb mass gatherings, set curfews, search houses, and so on. The French president has the power to enforce a state of emergency for up to 12 days — any longer requires approval from Parliament. Parliament can also extend the scope of the measures, and this is what MPs have voted in favor of today.
The terrorist attacks have reignited debates around how technology is used to coordinate and carry out such atrocious actions. Popular messaging apps such as Telegram have come under fire for the way they use encryption to prevent authorities from snooping on private messages. Telegram did announce yesterday that it had closed down 78 ISIS-related channels in 12 languages on the platform this week. However, that doesn’t stop more channels from opening up.
While governments are pushing to force tech companies to open up so-called “back doors” to their respective systems, allowing governments to intercept communications, many argue that such methods would weaken the entire platform and allow any miscreant to gain access. Moreover, signs so far suggest that the terrorist group responsible for the Paris atrocities weren’t actually using encrypted communication during the attacks — they reportedly used plain-old SMS.
However, the intersection between terrorism and technology extends beyond messaging apps. News emerged earlier today that European Union countries are planning a crackdown on “virtual” currencies and other anonymous payment systems in a bid to block terrorist funding.
Today’s vote was almost inevitable, given the series of terrorist events this year. Earlier in the year, French president Francois Hollande revealed plans to introduce a law that would effectively make Internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter “hate-speech accomplices” if they failed to block messages posted by extremist groups. The move followed the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, when the French satirical magazine was targeted for posting cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. And in August, another major terrorist attack was thwarted on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train.
No details have been given as to how the French government plans to enforce blocks to Internet communications, but there is only so much authorities can do. It’s easy enough to block access to Facebook and Twitter for the average user, but with the likes of VPNs (virtual private networks) and other privacy-focused communication tools, it’s not too difficult for those with just a little bit of knowledge to circumvent the blocks.