France has just joined the ranks of countries like China, Sweden, and Great Britain in blocking its citizens from accessing some content on the internet. The content in question includes child pornography and “websites seen to be linked to terrorism or promoting racial hatred.” Apparently, “a blacklist will be compiled based on input from Internet users who flag sites containing offensive material.”
There is much of interest here, beyond the obvious free speech issues (for example, why should no one have access to racist content if they seek to critique it?). For one, the decision signals a growing trend of governments regulating the internet, no longer being reserved with their coercive power. The internet has thrived largely because it has been so unregulated; any content restriction is a bad precedent. Further, such restrictions rarely work – evasion is too easy and enforcement too difficult. Also, blacklisting sites simply because someone flagged them as “containing offensive material” is severely overbroad and may encourage pranksters or rivals to blacklist safe sites for amusement or spite.
But perhaps most interesting is that France’s censorship comes not as an outright mandate, but as yet another probably-coerced “voluntary” agreement between government and ISPs. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, with data retention and just today in New York’s Usenet block. How many companies will capitulate in the face of implicit or explicit regulatory threats? How many will resist? When in 2006, the Justice Department subpoenaed search engines for records, only Google – the largest, most visible, and best-liked company – resisted. Let’s hope the little guy doesn’t get intimidated by government goons so easily – but I bet he will.