French net filtering plan moves forward

The National Assembly adopted the Loppsi II domestic security bill Tuesday; it now goes to the Senate for a final vote

French lawmakers voted Tuesday to approve a draft law to filter Internet traffic, a measure the government says is intended to catch child pornographers. The bill will now go on for a second and final reading.

Critics of the catch-all "Bill on direction and planning for the performance of domestic security" say that filtering won't stop the spread of child pornography -- but could allow the government to censor other materials.

The bill, known as Loppsi II in French, was approved by 312 votes to 214 in a vote in the National Assembly on Tuesday. The government has a large majority in the Assembly; two of its deputies abstained, with the others all voting in favor of the bill.

The Senate, where the government also has a majority, will soon give the bill a second reading. If the Senate makes no amendments to the text, that will also be its final reading, as the government has declared the bill "urgent," a procedural move that reduces the usual cycle of four readings to two. Any disagreements between the two parliamentary chambers will be reconciled by a commission appointed by the government.

The bill is a mishmash of unrelated measures, boosting the amount the police spend on "security," multiplying penalties for counterfeiting checks or credit cards, increasing use of CCTV cameras, extending access to the police national DNA database and authorizing the seizure of vehicles driven without a license.

Among the measures dealing with the Internet, it seeks to criminalize online identity theft, allow police to tap Internet connections as well as phone lines during investigations, and target child pornography by ordering ISPs to filter Internet connections.

ISPs will be required to block access to any Internet address the authorities consider necessary to prevent distribution of child pornography.

Critics of the bill, while opposing the distribution of child pornography, say filtering is the wrong way to go about it.

In a report analyzing the economics of the child pornography business, journalist Fabrice Epelboin warned that filtering URLs will have no effect, as distributors of such materials are already using encrypted peer-to-peer systems to deliver their wares.

During the debate, Deputy Lionel Tardy cited a report from the French Federation of Telecommunications that said filtering would cost up to €140 million (US$190 million) yet remain largely ineffective against the main distribution channels for child pornography.

As if that weren't enough, others say that blocking sites suspected of hosting child pornography is likely to affect blameless sites at the same IP (Internet protocol) address, so-called "collateral damage."

Opposition deputies tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to require blocking only of specific URLs or documents to avoid this problem. They also wanted a judge to review the list of blocked URLs each month to ensure that sites were not needlessly blocked, and to make the filters a temporary measure until their effectiveness was proven, but those amendments too were rejected by the government majority.

Once the filter system is in place, say its opponents, it could be used to limit access to other Internet sites.

President Nicolas Sarkozy is already thinking along those lines. In a speech to members of the French music and publishing industries in January, Sarkozy said that authorities should experiment with filtering in order to automatically remove all forms of piracy from the Internet.

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