French national newspaper Le Monde has reported that the French Ministry of Interior is planning laws to ban free WiFi, the dark net and encryption. (The article is in French only and without a subscription will require payment to read in full)
France has always had an uneasy relationship with the Internet. Successive French governments have tried to limit its impact on French society and culture. It sees it as just another way for French films and media to be overwhelmed by American made works. There have also been continual attacks on its use for copyright theft and the impact on arts and culture.
A French government suspending human rights?
In this latest move the French government appears to be willing to take on the UN and the European Commission over the issue of whether WiFi is a basic human right. While it is only talking about banning WiFi in a state of emergency such as the Paris attack, it clearly hasn’t thought through the proposal. With the current state of emergency being extended for three months, that would mean free WiFi being blocked for all that time.
Most countries allow for mobile telephone networks to be switched off in order to reduce the impact of calls to emergency services. However this also causes increased distress to those trying to track family members caught up in any incident.
The justification for turning WiFi off is that it aids attackers by providing them with information as to what is going on in the aftermath of an attack making their escape easier. The challenge here is balancing that with the rights of the general population in finding out what is happening and helping to reduce panic.
The big bad dangerous dark net
The second part of the announcement is to block Tor or the dark net as it is otherwise called. This is a little like King Canute trying to hold back the tide. France has a long history of underground activism who will see this as an attack on their way of life. The ease with which individuals can set up a Tor network would mean France having to consider draconian measures to monitor Internet usage to such a degree as to spot any possible usage of Tor by individuals.
This level of state monitoring would put France in the same league as China and North Korea, countries which it continually lambasts for blocking access to the Internet. With China the only country in the world to claim some legitimate success on blocking Tor it has done so because of the way it has implemented filtering and monitoring measures on Internet usage. With liberté, égalité, fraternité being part of the French national code there will be many, especially on the left, who will see this as an attack on liberty.
European courts likely to throw out block on encryption
The third step is to ban encryption. This is another area where few realise that the French government has never repealed laws that require you to provide the password and encryption key to a border officer, upon request, whenever you enter France. While it is rarely, if ever, used these days it will be interesting to see how the French government intends to implement it for business travellers entering the country.
It is easy to visualise queues at airports and ports of thousands of people waiting to have their laptops checked by the French state which will make this whole thing unusable. The claim that it will help in the fight against terror has some degree of legitimacy but again this brings the French state into conflict with the European Commission.
To meet the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) companies are going to have to ensure that everything they move is encrypted. That means encyrypted on devices, servers and when in transit. Any ban on encryption in France would have to be referred to the European Courts with the likelihood they will strike down the French law in favour of the European regulation.
In the aftermath of any atrocity there are knee jerk reactions. This is no exception and it appears that there has been little thought as to the level of monitoring and intrusion into citizens lives that will be needed to enact these laws. They will also have a significant economic impact on the technology market in France and risks seeing R&D money moved outside of France to other countries.
The current UK government will be watching this development with interest as some of the goals align with its so-called snoopers charter. It knows the problems it is having in getting ISPs to retain users history and the resistance from business and other political parties. Should the French government proceed, especially with the banning of encryption, the UK will almost certainly be willing to offer it support in front of the EU courts.
At the moment we have seen little reaction from businesses across France, many will rightly be keeping their heads down and working out the implications for them. Surprisingly we have also seen no response from the National Front (FN) or Marine Le Pen. It will be interesting to see if they agree or disagree and whether they scent an opportunity for political mischief over this.