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French Ministry of Interior v. Indymedia: An absurd and shocking act of censorship

Paris, 25 September 2017 - Last Thursday, the French Ministry of Interior ordered two Indymedia websites, one in Nantes and the other in Grenoble, to take down an anonymous tract claiming responsibility for fire arson in a police hangar the previous night. According to the government, the hosted text constitutes a "provocation to terrorism". The two Indymedia sites decided to take down the litigious content, in order to avoid being put on the secret blocking list sent by the government to major ISPs in France to censor websites. While the text has also been relayed on the websites of traditional news outlets, the latter have apparently not been subject to the government's takedown request.

This act of extra-judicial censorship is as absurd as it is shocking. Absurd because the litigious text remains widely available online, including through major media sites, and because this affair gives way to a Streisand effect that gives it even more publicity. Shocking because this decision, adopted under the anti-terrorism law of November 2014, illustrates the dangerous consequences of the fight against terrorism, which allows the government to use exceptional measures to target activist groups or, as in the present case, independent and participatory media.

Although sanctioned by the Constitutional Council and the Council of State,1 this system of administrative censorship of the Internet, supposedly subject to the oversight of the French data protection authority, is a disproportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression. To our knowledge, this is the first time that such an anti-terrorist measure, usually covered in secrecy, is implemented for content that is not associated with Islamist extremism. This extension is all the more worrying considering that through yet another bill against terrorism, the government is seeking to transpose into the ordinary law many exceptional measures which could hitherto only be applied during the state of emergency.

After the takedown of an Indymedia website in Germany last month, after the blocking of separatist websites in Catalonia last week, this new attack on freedom of expression on the Internet is part of a wider and worrying trend. As the European Court of Human Rights wrote in 1976 , freedom of expression "applies not only to information or ideas welcomed with favor", but also "to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any part of the population". La Quadrature calls on the European Commission and the Council of Europe to condemn these police operations which undermine the continent's alleged commitment to freedom of expression.