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France plans internet ombudsman to protect free speech

23rd Dec 2016

France is considering appointing an official internet ombudsman to regulate complaints about online material so that excessive censorship is prevented and free speech preserved.

A bill establishing a “content qualification assessment procedure” has been tabled in the French senate; the initiative was debated at a high level meeting attended by senators and judges, alongside policy officers from Google and Twitter.

The aim of the bill 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 Shefets, a Danish lawyer who works in Paris, has developed the proposal with the French senator Nathalie Goulet. He said that “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,” he continued, “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 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.

Shefets believes that an internet ombudsman will help smaller companies that cannot afford large legal departments to assess the risks of material they host online.