Jane Wakefield: L'Internet, c'est terrible

Internet madness from the French government
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The French are coming. Vive La France.

Australians hate New Zealanders, Americans hate Canadians and Canadians just hate each other. In the wonderful world of stereotyping and football riots there is nothing we like better than a nation to ridicule.

And ours lies just 26 miles across the Channel in the home of gastronomy (that's snails and frog legs to the xenophobic) and garlic. French farmers have more power than their English counterparts, French men are allowed to have mistresses and their food smells more than ours. Reason enough to hate them you may think (oh and don't forget their worst crime -- they speak French).

Well not quite. Francophobes were given yet another reason to hate our neighbours last week as our garlic-crushing friends decided to get tough on the Internet. On Monday the French courts decided that French surfers should not be allowed to buy Nazi paraphernalia from an auction site hosted by Yahoo!. In what seemed to be a somewhat draconian ruling, the court gave Yahoo! just two months to come up with a method to make sure they couldn't.

Now to my way of thinking if you are of a mind to buy Nazi momentos then lack of Web access is not going to stop you. If owning a pair of Eva Braun's knickers is what really turns you on, then there is no power in the world that is going to stop you.

As if that wasn't bizarre enough, then things were to get decidedly stranger on Wednesday when it emerged that France has beaten the Brits to the title of "most stupid piece of Internet legislation in the world". For a while it looked as if the RIP (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) bill was a clear favourite but that was until the French hoisted the Liberty of Communications bill on an unsuspecting world.

Basically the French government has decided, in its wisdom, that no-one should be allowed to set up a Web site without consulting them first. It is planning to force all potential Web publishers to fill out an online registration form before setting up frenchpoodles.com or whyweloveberetsandonions.org or whatever it is that tickles your French fancy. The bill is due to be debated in the French Senate this week.

Supporters say it is just intended to make people legally liable for material on the Net but opponents say it suppresses civil liberties and may well drive companies out of France altogether.

What has got into the French? I was under the impression that the Internet had been through all the attempts to gag it and had come out -- pretty much intact -- the other side. I thought politicians were coming round if not to a respect for the Net at least a grudging acceptance that it played a useful part in economic wellbeing and was best left alone.

The lessons of censorship were so simply illustrated by Prohibition when even teetotal old ladies could not get enough of the hard stuff. The more you suppress something the more people will want to get their hands on it. And that simple fact is so apparent of the Internet that any small child could tell it was so. If censorship is unpalatable to the masses it is also incredibly hard to enforce in the physical world, let alone the cyber one. The Internet has always held on to its free ethos by the skin of its teeth. Like the kid who wore an earring to school and leant back in his chair with an aura of "so what?" the Internet was always going to attract the wrath of the Establishment.

In the UK though the government have learned to grin and bear the Net -- in fact they are growing quite fond of it in some ways (although they still demand the right to snoop on everything that happens there). In France there is a far weaker Internet industry and the would-be dotcomming filles and garcons will be holding their heads in their hands at its government's misunderstanding of how to deal with the Net.

President Chirac should take a lesson from Tony Blair and get Nettie. Go to IT lessons, embarrass yourself by ordering flowers for your wife (or mistress) but don't interfere.

Vive L'Internet!!!

This isn't the first example of legislators imagining that the Web is something local, and it won't be the last. What worries Guy Kewney is this: how many people will go to jail for breaking "local" laws which are utterly irrelevant to the Internet, before this settles down? Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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