Internet firms slam French online snooping bill

Greater surveillance will undermine transparency, French Internet firms say
Greater surveillance will undermine transparency, French Internet firms say thinkstock

The French government was criticised by the country’s Internet companies for pushing online snooping legislation that would be “bad for business”.


Three months after a series of deadly Islamist militant attacks, French lawmakers on Monday began debating a controversial surveillance law that would allow security services to monitor suspicious activities without a court warrant.

Speaking at the opening of the debate in the National Assembly, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls insisted the proposed law would not be a move towards NSA-style mass surveillance.

Critics have compared the law to the US “Patriot Act”, introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which gave American security services unprecedented access to private data as part of the country’s so-called War on Terror.

Valls vowed that France would not gather vast quantities of data under the new law: “The critics or the posturing that refer to a French Patriot Act or the stench of a police state are outright lies and irresponsible in the context of threat we face.”

His confidence isn’t shared by Internet companies and civil rights groups who say that the legislation will undermine customer and investor confidence, while undermining privacy protections.

French web hosting firm OVH warned on Monday that the industry, which it said was growing at 30 percent a year and was an increasingly important sector of the French economy, would be directly threatened by the proposed law.

A statement posted on the company’s website, signed by five other French Internet companies, said the country’s intelligence services were only targeting “around 5,000 people” and that the installation of so-called “black box” snooping devices would have a negative impact on business that was wildly disproportionate to the threat.

“Giving the government unlimited access to this data can only create doubts in the minds of businesses and individual customers who use our services,” the company said. “They choose hosting companies on the basis of confidence and transparency, which we will no longer be able to respect because government agencies will have total control.”

“This proposed law will not achieve its objectives, will potentially put every single French citizen under surveillance and will destroy a sector of growing and important economic activity in this country,” the statement added.

Valls meanwhile said that France was now monitoring more than 1,500 Islamist militants and about 300 people who have returned from fighting with militant groups in Syria and Iraq, and that the legislation would only be used in times of “major crisis”.

Under the proposed law, French spy agencies would get more power to bug and track would-be attackers inside the country, bug suspects’ flats with microphones and cameras and add “keyloggers” to their computers to track every keystroke.

French intelligence services would also be able to install “black boxes” on Internet service providers’ (ISP) infrastructure with algorithms to filter communications. ISP’s would be required to monitor suspicious behaviour and report it to the authorities.

Valls has the luxury of broad public support amid fears that jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria could launch attacks similar to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January, in which 17 people were killed at the newspaper’s offices and at a Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris.

The incidents provoked a nationwide outpouring of solidarity, and a poll published by the CSA polling firm on Monday showed that 69 percent of people polled in supported tougher surveillance laws.

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