La Quadrature du Net takes legal action against the French government’s censorship of TikTok in New Caledonia

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Through an emergency proceeding (reféré-liberté) filed today, La Quadrature du Net is asking the Conseil d’État to suspend Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s decision to block the TikTok platform in New Caledonia. With this censorship order, the French government struck an unprecedented and particularly serious blow to freedom of expression online, which neither the local context nor the toxicity of the platform can justify in a regime pretending to abide by the rule of law.

The government’s authoritarian reflexes

As the situation in New Caledonia is reaching a dramatic stage, after three years of crisis, and as the political dialogue appears to have broken down following the decision by the French government and parliament to change electoral rules to the detriment of Kanak independentists, the government has decided to revert to old authoritarian and colonial reflexes. In addition to sending in armed forces on the island, it has pronounced an outright blockade of the TikTok platform on the territory of New Caledonia. According to the online media Numerama, the Prime Minister considers such actions justified “because of the interference and manipulation to which the platform, whose parent company is Chinese, is subject“, adding that the application would be “used as a medium for spreading disinformation on social networks, fed by foreign countries, and relayed by rioters“.

Now, to implement such censorship, what better than one of the exceptional laws the government has been systematizing its use of in recent years? By declaring a state of emergency in New Caledonia, the government has authorized itself to experiment with an article of the Law of 1955, added in 2017: the possibility of blocking online platforms “provoking the commission of acts of terrorism or glorifying them“.

No one should be fooled: in reality, the blocking of TikTok is not due to the presence on the platform of terrorist content, but to the fact that it has turned into central platform for the online speech of the protestors. This decision to attack the means of communication at times of violent protest – a first in the European Union, and one that seems worthy of the Russian and Turkish regimes, which are regularly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for infringements of freedom of expression – was already put to the test last year, after the death of Nahel Merzouk.

In the summer of 2023, Emmanuel Macron indeed expressed his wish to be able to block social networks during moments of crisis. The President of the Republic then embarked on a veritable authoritarian race to the bottom against online platforms, blaming video games, then social networks, which he said he should be able to block, as he called for a generalized end of anonymity online (already drastically undermined in practice). At the time, online platforms had responded by arbitrarily censoring content relating to events and violence in French suburbs. At the time, we denounced this collaboration between private platforms and public authorities, united to curb freedom of expression in the name of “restoring order”(see our analysis). Today, the government persists in its determination to bring the means of communication into line, this time by choosing the explicitly authoritarian path: total blockage.

New Caledonia, a testing ground

The decision to block TikTok in New Caledonia is the government’s first practical implementation of the Macronist program of online censorship announced last summer. The opportunity seems ideal for the government: on the one hand, because of the French media’s relative lack of interest in the archipelago (it wasn’t until several days later, and notably the first death among the inhabitants, that the press in mainland France began to cover New Caledonian news) and on the other, because this territory has different legal rules, particularly with regard to European Union law. In this way, the government believes it can put down the revolt without responding to protesters’ grievances and refusing to address the question of the constitutional reform on Caledonian elections and the ensuing condemntation of the Kanak population.

The aim of this censorship decision is above all to stifle the expression of a revolt. It also constitutes a trial balloon before a possible generalization of this type of measure. From this point of view, the political context seems favorable. In a recent report following the urban revolts of 2023, the Senate’s Law Commission called for nothing less than what is now being applied in New Caledonia: the blocking of social networks and harsher punishments against those who used them during the uprisings of some of the youth in marginalised neighborhoods last year.

Fighting the authoritarian spiral

Through the legal challenge filed today, we are therefore attempting to put an halt to the authoritarian machine launched at full speed. Make no mistake: this is not about defending TikTok, a platform whose proven toxicity is beginning to be taken into account by lawmakers. While public authorities are obsessed with the Chinese nationality of the platform’s capital owners, in fact there is not much that separates TikTok’s model from that of Instagram, Snapchat or other dominant social networks. Beyond TikTok and the tutelage of the Chinese regime, it’s the entire political economy linked to these centralized social networks, based on the massive collection and exploitation of user data, organized around toxic algorithms and interfaces, that needs to be dismantled. It is to promote alternatives favorable to freedom of expression and protective of rights that we are calling for the interoperability of social networks.

Through this appeal, we first and foremost aim at denouncing loud and clear this unprecedented authoritarian measure in a regime that claims to be democratic, but also to prevent the government’s appeal for control from finding any political or legal legitimacy. At a time when the Law aimed at “securing and regulating the digital space” (SREN) has just been passed, radically threatening online anonymity and pushing for greater administrative censorship, when the fight against terrorism is being used as a pretext to stifle online expression and dissent, we must continue to fight for our rights.

In this context, La Quadrature needs your support. The appeal we filed today would not be possible otherwise. Join us in our fight, so we don’t remain silent in the face of the government’s authoritarian attacks. And if you can, please donate to