France plans internet ombudsman to safeguard free speech
Ombudsman role would serve to protect companies from spurious complaints and prevent excessive censorship
OWEN BOWCOTT, legal affairs correspondent
France is considering appointing an official internet ombudsman to regulate complaints about online material in order to prevent excessive censorship and preserve free speech.
A bill establishing a “content qualification assessment procedure” has been tabled in the French senate and the initiative was debated last week at a high level meeting attended by senators and judges as well as policy officers from Google and Twitter.
Ombudsman would regulate complaints about online material in order to prevent excessive censorship. Photograph: Alamy
The aim is to provide a simple procedure that will support firms operating online who are uncertain of their legal liabilities and to prevent over-zealous removal or censorship of material merely because it is the subject of a complaint. It could be copied by other European jurisdictions.
Dan Shefet, a Danish lawyer who works in Paris has developed the proposal with the French senator Nathalie Goulet, said: “The problem which an internet ombudsman addresses applies to all countries in Europe [because] member states have to work with the e-commerce directive.
“According to the directive, internet service providers (ISPs) face both penal and civil liability as soon as they are made aware of allegedly illicit content. One consequence of such liability is that smaller companies take down such content for fear of later sanctions.
“The risk to freedom of speech is real and significant as a consequence not only of the directive, but also of growing pressure on ISPs all over Europe and the world for that matter”.
The idea is that a rapid response from the internet ombudsman, whose office would need to be appropriately staffed, would either order the material to be taken down or allow it to remain. As long as ISPs complied with the rulings, they would not face any fine or punishment.
David Wright, of the UK Safer Internet Centre, said the closest existing model was Australia’s e-safety commissioner which provides a complaints service for children experiencing cyber-bullying.
Shefet, who founded the Association for Accountability and Internet Democracy (AAID) in 2014, is also working with Unesco to develop the project particularly to deal with material deemed to be encouraging radicalisation.
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About the author
Owen Bowcott is the legal affairs correspondent at The Guardian. He was formerly the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent and also worked on the foreign news desk.
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