A Obstacles to Access 22 25
B Limits on Content 29 35
C Violations of User Rights 24 40
Last Year's Score & Status
74 100 Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). See the research methodology and report acknowledgements.

header1 Key Developments, June 1, 2017 - May 31, 2018

  • A hotly debated legislative proposal presented at the end of March would enable candidates to require judges to swiftly decide whether to stop the dissemination of allegedly false information online during electoral periods (see Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation).
  • For the second time in 2017, the Constitutional Council struck down a provision that criminalized the regular consultation of websites deemed to incite or glorify terrorism. On the other hand, users continued to be sentenced for inciting or glorifying terrorism online (see Legal Environment and Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities).
  • While the prolonged state of emergency officially ended in November 2017, certain emergency measures were enshrined into ordinary law through the “Act to reinforce internal security and the fight against terrorism.” A provision obliging suspects to provide all their electronic identifiers to authorities was omitted from the final text (see Legal Environment).

header2 Introduction

While France’s internet freedom environment improved slightly as the impact of disinformation eased after a tense election year, new French President Emmanuel Macron reacted by promoting a legislative proposal to combat fake news during election campaigns.

Although the surge in “fake news” and political bot operations did not ultimately manage to sway the result of the French election in 2017, the proliferation of disinformation and leaks seeking to disrupt the process raised alarm. After being targeted by fake news and rumors during the election, President Emmanuel Macron announced in January 2018 a proposal to prevent large scale disinformation campaigns on the internet that are likely to affect the vote. Presented at the end of March, two texts under consideration would enable judges to swiftly decide whether to stop the dissemination of allegedly false content during elections and pre-election periods.

Measures to address terrorist threats have also continued to impact France’s internet freedom environment by expanding surveillance powers and limiting judicial oversight. Following a string of deadly terrorist attacks, France finally ended a two-year state of emergency in November 2017. However, some of the exceptional powers used under the state of emergency were codified into ordinary law. Moreover, a recent amendment to the routine military spending bill (the Military Planning Law) for the years 2019-2025 extended internal access to data collected outside borders, by providing anti-terrorist investigators with information obtained by France's external intelligence agency.

A Obstacles to Access

France’s internet penetration rate continued to increase, although regional disparities persist. The current ICT market is open, highly competitive, and has benefited from the privatization of the state-owned company France Telecom.

Availability and Ease of Access

France’s internet penetration rate reached 80.5 percent at the end of 2017, up from 79.27 percent in 2016.1 Committed to providing widespread access to high-speed broadband, the French government has been implementing an ambitious national plan to deploy high-speed broadband throughout France by 2022, mobilizing public and private investments totaling EUR 20 billion (US$22 billion) over 10 years.2 By mid-2017, 16.7 million households were eligible for very high speed broadband.3

Reforms approved in 2015, known as the “Loi Macron,” sought to improve mobile broadband coverage in the country, requiring telecom operators to deploy 2G network in underserved municipalities by 2016, and ensure 3G/4G coverage by 2017.4 In July 2017, 4G coverage in rural areas ranged from approximately 47 percent to 74 percent, depending on the company.5

Demographic disparities in internet usage persist. A map produced by Arcep illustrates some of the regional disparities in mobile penetration, showing patchy coverage of 4G networks in rural areas.6 Most at-home users have access to broadband connections, while the remaining households are connected either through dial-up or satellite services, usually due to their rural location.7

Restrictions on Connectivity

There were no restrictions on connectivity reported during the coverage period. There is no central internet backbone, and ISPs are not required to lease bandwidth from a monopoly holder. Instead, the backbone consists of several interconnected networks run by ISPs and shared through peering or transit agreements. There are also a number of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in France,8 which contribute to improved access and lower consumer prices.9

ICT Market

There are no significant business hurdles to providing access to digital technologies in France. The main ISPs are Orange, Free, Bouygues Telecom, and Numericable-SFR (SFR was a division of Vivendi that was sold to Numericable).10 Others such as NRJ Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Cofidis Mobile, and Darty make use of the main ISPs’ networks, reselling the services.11

In July 2017, regulator ARCEP announced it would impose certain constraints on market leader Orange in an effort to open up competition for high-speed fiber services among small and medium-sized companies.12

In March 2018, a large commercial dispute burst over the distribution of TV channels, impacting ISPs, but also cable and satellite operators. TV channel TF1, owned by the Bouygues Group (also owner of Bouygues Telecom), previously provided its free-to-air channels free-of-charge for distribution via cable and IPTV. The channel owns distribution rights of the Soccer World Cup, and wanted to obtain carriage fees from operators who retransmit the channel to their subscribers. Canal+ customers were deprived of TF1 channels in early March because of the dispute between the groups.13

Regulatory Bodies

The telecommunications industry in France is regulated by the Regulatory Authority for Electronic and Postal Communication (ARCEP),14 while competition is regulated by France’s Competition Authority and, more broadly, by the European Commission (EC).15 The commissioner of ARCEP is appointed by the government, but as an EU Member State, France must ensure the independence of its national telecommunications regulator. Given that the French state is the main shareholder in Orange, the country’s leading telecom company, the EC stated that it would closely monitor the situation in France to ensure that European regulations were being met.16 ARCEP remains an independent and impartial body, and regulator decisions are usually seen as fair.

The Digital Republic Act enacted in October 2016 broadened ARCEP's powers, notably granting ARCEP with investigatory and sanctioning powers to ensure compliance with the principle of net neutrality introduced by the law.17 In June 2017, ARCEP stated again its aim to promote net neutrality and digital transformation.18

B Limits on Content

Following a string of deadly terrorist attacks in France, much attention has focused on mechanisms to counter pro-terrorist content online, resulting in an uptick of removal and blocking requests. Legislative proposals to tackle disinformation campaigns emerged in the aftermath of the 2017 presidential election.

Blocking and Filtering

France does not generally engage in any politically-motivated blocking of websites. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and international blog-hosting services are freely available. However, since the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 attacks in Paris, the government has released statements suggesting that limiting fundamental rights of citizens would serve public safety,1 and terrorist-related content has been subject to censorship.

A decree issued in February 2015 outlined administrative measures to block websites containing materials that incite or condone terrorism, as well as sites that display child pornography.2 The decree implemented article 6-1 of the Law on Confidence in the Digital Economy (LCEN), passed in 2004, as well as article 12 of a new antiterrorism law passed in November 2014.3 The administrative authority, in this case the Central Office for the Fight against Crime related to Information and Communication Technology (OCLCTIC), is in charge of creating a blacklist of sites containing infringing materials, and must review the list every four months to ensure that blacklisted sites continue to contravene French law. OCLCTIC can request editors or hosts to remove the content, and after a 24 hour period it can request ISPs to block the site.4 Users trying to access those pages are redirected to a website from the Ministry of Interior indicating why the site was blocked and providing avenues for appeal. Shortly after the decree was announced, five websites were blocked with no judicial or public oversight under suspicion of containing terrorism-related information.5

The lack of judicial oversight in the blocking of websites that incite or promote terrorist acts remains a chief concern. The procedure is supervised by the National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), the country’s data protection agency. As an administrative authority, CNIL can also refer requests to the administrative court should they be unhappy with any action taken by the OCLCTIC. Some commentators have lamented that while CNIL was founded to protect internet freedoms, it is now overseeing the restriction of those same rights.6

The Paris attacks in November 2015 and the terrorist attack in Nice in July 2016 impacted the number of overall requests to censor content linked to terrorism (see “Content Removal”). According to CNIL’s activity report covering the period between March 2017 and February 2018, French authorities made 763 requests to block sites, compared to 874 during the previous period (some of them were made available again after the removal of infringing content). Administrative blocking requests for terrorist content targeted 83 sites, compared to 680 sites displaying child abuse.7 This mechanism does not report the detailed content of websites blocked, but it does report censorship decisions disputed by CNIL.

Under the extended state of emergency legislation first adopted in November 2015, the interior minister was given the power to block websites and social media, taking “any measure to ensure the interruption of any public communication service online that glorifies or incites acts of terrorism.”8 However, the Minister of Interior has not resorted to this measure.

President Macron’s proposal on combating disinformation during electoral periods also foresees blocking of websites. According to two draft laws under consideration, parties and candidates can ask judges to determine measures to remove or block infringing content within 48 hours. Shortly after the National Assembly passed the draft laws in July 2018, the Senate rejected them.9 Critics have argued that the proposal would impose a large strain on judges who will have to decide whether a website is fake or not (see also “Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation”).10

Content Removal

French authorities are fairly transparent about what content is prohibited and the reasons behind specific content removal requests. Incitement of hatred, racism, Holocaust denial, child pornography, copyright infringement, and defamation are illegal. Article R645-1 of the French criminal code outlaws the display of the emblems, uniforms, or badges of criminal organizations, under penalty of a fine.11

As stipulated in the 2014 anti-terrorism law, the administrative authority (OCLCTIC) can request editors and hosts to remove content that incites or apologizes for terrorism, as well as sites that display child abuse; after a 24-hour period it can request ISPs to block the site (see “Blocking and Filtering”).12

A government decree issued on March 4, 2015 also allows for the delisting of online content from search results using a similar administrative procedure supervised by CNIL.13 Under this decree, OCLCTIC submits requests to search engines, which then have 48 hours to comply. The OCLCTIC is responsible for reevaluating de-indexed websites every four months, and requesting the relisting of websites where the incriminating content has been removed. According to CNIL’s report, between March 2017 and February 2018, French authorities submitted 3,115 de-indexing requests for content related to child abuse and terrorism (compared to 2,077 the previous year), as well as 35,110 removal requests (a big increase compared to 2,561 last year). Content was removed in 7,724 cases, 6,320 of which concerned pro-terrorist content. CNIL disputed a handful of these removal and de-indexing requests.14

The anti-piracy law HADOPI was originally passed in June 200915 and supplemented by a second law in October 2009.16 HADOPI functions by responding to copyright infringers with a graduated response, starting with an email warning for the first offense, followed by a registered letter if a second offence occurs within six months. If a third offence occurs within a year of the registered letter, the case can be referred to the court, and the offender may receive a fine as a possible sanction.17 In June 2017, HADOPI published a report showcasing increased activity: it filed more than 800 referrals to prosecutors that year. Most fines ranged from 50 to 1,000 euros.18

Legal debates over the right to be forgotten (RTBD) have also escalated in recent years. The French data protection agency CNIL has been battling with Google to enforce the RTBF ruling across all of the sites that can be accessed within the country, including and not just Google raised concerns that the move would set a dangerous precedent for authoritarian governments, who could also request that Google apply national laws extraterritorially.20 In March 2016, Google was fined US$112,000 by the CNIL for not complying with demands to remove results across its global domains.21 Google appealed to France’s Council of State, which in July 2017 decided to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).22

In the most recent CNIL report, the authority noted that it had received 335 delisting requests after search engines rejected them.23 On its side, Google released details of RTBF requests: France was the top country in terms of volume of URLs requested (more than 400,000 URLs) under the RTBF, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom. The report also noted that requesters in France were most concerned with information published on social media and directory aggregators.24

A ruling in early February 2016 by a Paris court established that Facebook could be sued in France for removing the account of a French user who posted an image of a 19th century Gustave Courbet painting of a naked woman. A French court will now be entitled to hear the case, brought by the account’s Parisian user. Facebook had argued that cases concerning their terms and conditions could only be heard by a Santa Clara, CA court, where its headquarters are based. This was dismissed by a Paris appeals court, which ruled that should the case involve a French user, it can be heard in France. The decision was appealed to France’s highest court,25 which finally stated in February 2018 that the case will be judged in France.26

Media, Diversity, and Content Manipulation

France is home to a highly diverse online media environment. Self-censorship online is minimal, and there were no reports of the French government proactively manipulating content online. However, concerns about disinformation and political bot operations heightened in the run-up to the 2017 French presidential election, and a trove of leaked documents sought to destabilize candidate Emmanuel Macron. This led newly elected President Macron to announce in January 2018 planned legislation to combat manipulation of information during electoral periods.27

The government is seeking to implement proposed new rules to combat disinformation campaigns during elections. Presented at the end of March, two texts under consideration during the report’s coverage period would enable judges to swiftly decide whether to stop the dissemination of allegedly false content during elections and pre-election periods. The proposal would also seek to strengthen transparency requirements on sponsored content posted on online platforms. Adopted by the National Assembly in first readings, the Senate rejected both controversial proposals in late July 2018.28 The proposals were thus to be examined by a mixed committee composed of the two chambers of parliament.29

Digital Activism

French digital rights and advocacy groups, such as La Quadrature du Net (LQDN), are very active in the country, playing a significant role in protesting the government’s recent moves to expand surveillance and blocking measures without judicial oversight.30 In the past, LQDN successfully lobbied the European Parliament for an amendment to the European Union Telecoms Package to ensure that no restrictions on internet access could be imposed without prior judicial approval.31

In July 2017, twelve civil society organizations asked parliamentarians to reject the new law reinforcing the fight against terrorism and lobbied against the institutionalization of the state of emergency. The new anti-terrorism law was finally passed in October 2017 (see “Legal Environment”). The campaign was largely promoted online and on social networks and led to several protests in Paris.32

C Violations of User Rights

Laws to address threats to national security have bolstered the state’s surveillance powers and introduced stricter measures to tackle terrorist propaganda online. The prolonged state of emergency initiated after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 finally ended in November 2017, but some of the exceptional powers used under the state of emergency were codified into ordinary law.

Legal Environment

In accordance with the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man,1 France’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech.2 The European Convention on Human Rights, of which France is a signatory, provides for freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions which are “necessary in a democratic society.”3

Since November 2015, broad new powers under the state of emergency have raised concerns among human rights and digital activists.4 While former Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared on November 19 that it was a “short term response,”5 the state of emergency was subsequently extended six times until November 1, 2017.6 The state of emergency included provisions on electronic searches (see “Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity”),7 and also empowered the interior minister to take “any measure to ensure the interruption of any online public communication service that incites the commission of terrorist acts or glorifies them.”8 The new counter-terrorism law that came into effect on November 1, 2017 has also raised concerns among civil rights campaigners for giving prefects and security forces wide-ranging powers with limited judicial oversight. The law notably enables prefects to order house searches, close places of worship, and establish border checks.9 The final text omitted an obligation for suspects to declare all their electronic identifiers.10

Other measures to address terrorism were already in place prior to the November 2015 state of emergency. The antiterrorism law passed in November 2014 penalizes online speech deemed as “apology for terrorism” (apologie du terrorisme) with up to seven years in prison and a EUR 100,000 (US$100,000) fine. Online penalties are harsher than offline, which is subject to five years in prison and a EUR 75,000 fine.11

Another law adopted by parliament in May 2016 and enacted in June 2016 “on the fight against terrorism and organized crime” also provides sentences of up to two years in prison or a EUR 30,000 fine for frequently visiting sites that glorify or incite terrorist acts, unless these consultations are done in “good faith,” such as journalistic or research activities.12 France’s Constitutional Council finally rejected this last law in February 2017, arguing that the notion of “good faith” was unclear, and that the law was not “necessary, appropriate and proportionate.”13 An amended version was reintroduced as part of a public security law, imposing prison sentences on users who also “manifest adherence” to the ideology expressed on the site,14 but was once again struck down by the Constitutional Court, in December 2017.15

Prosecutions and Detentions for Online Activities

No citizens faced politically-motivated arrests or prosecutions, but users have increasingly been sentenced for inciting or glorifying terrorism online.16 The broad terms of “inciting” and “glorifying” terrorism risk targeting speech that have tenuous causal links to terrorist acts.

In March 2018, following a terrorist attack on a supermarket in Trebes,17 a former member of the French political party “La France Insoumise” mocked on Twitter the gendarme who died in exchange for a hostage during the attack. The ex-politician received a 1 year of suspended prison sentence.18 Following the same event, a vegan activist was given a seven-month suspended sentence because she posted a comment on social media saying that she had “zero compassion” for the butcher who died during the attack, and questioned: “Does it shock you that an assassin is killed by a terrorist? Not me...”19

Surveillance, Privacy, and Anonymity

Surveillance has escalated in recent years, not least with the enactment of a new surveillance law in July 2015, which was passed in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo earlier that year.

The 2015 Loi Relative au Renseignement, or Intelligence Law,20 allows for intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order and requires ISPs to install so-called “black boxes,” algorithms that analyze users’ metadata for “suspicious” behavior in real time.21 In July 2016, an amendment authorized real-time collection of metadata of individuals not only “identified as a terrorist threat,” but also those “likely to be related” to a terrorist threat, or those who belong to the “entourage” of the person concerned.22

The French Constitutional Council declared three of the law’s provisions unconstitutional in July 2015, including one that would have allowed the interception of all international electronic communications. However, an amendment enabling surveillance of electronic communications sent to or received from abroad was later adopted on November 30, 2015, shortly after the Paris attacks on November 13, for the purposes of “defending and promoting the fundamental interests of the country.”23 In October 2016, the Constitutional Council censored part of the Intelligence Law related to the monitoring of Hertz wave communications after qualifying it as “disproportionate.”24 Articles 15 of the new counter-terrorism law of November 2017 reintroduced a new legal regime for monitoring wireless communications, but the new version limits this surveillance to certain devices such as walkie-talkies, and would not encompass Wi-Fi.25

Other recent regulations on electronic surveillance were passed as part of a routine military spending bill (the Military Planning Law, or LPM). An amendment to the LPM promulgated in July 2018 to be implemented from 2019 to 2025 extended domestic access to data by providing anti-terrorist investigators with information obtained by the General Directorate for External Security, France's external intelligence agency. According to Article 37, it will be possible to "perform within the intercepted connection data spot checks for the sole purpose of detecting a threat to the fundamental interests of the nation, linked to subscription numbers or technical identifiers attributable to French territory and geographical areas.”26 Digital rights groups have criticized the expansion of forms of surveillance that previously only concerned French residents located outside of the national territory.27

The LPM covering the years 2014-2019 had already extended administrative access to connection data by enabling designated officials to request communications data from ISPs for the purposes of “national security,” the protection of France’s “scientific and economical potential,” and the prevention of “terrorism” or “criminality.”28 The office of the prime minister authorizes surveillance and the National Commission for Security Interception (Commission nationale de contrôle des interceptions de sécurité, CNCIS) must be informed within 48 hours in order to ensure its approval.29 Critics have pointed out that the CNCIS lacks appropriate control mechanisms and independence from political interference, given that the CNCIS is composed of only three politicians.30 On the other hand, the government argued that the law provides an improved legal framework for practices that have already been in place for years.31

A law related to the fight against organized crime and terrorism, enacted in June 2016, also elicited strong reactions from the public.32 The law notably expanded special investigation methods to prosecutors and investigating judges, which were previously reserved for intelligence services. This included bugging private locations, using phone eavesdropping devices such as IMSI catchers, and conducting night-time searches.33 Article 23 of LOPPSI 2, adopted in 2011, granted the police with the authority to install malware—such as keystroke logging software and Trojan horses—on a suspect’s computer in the course of counterterrorism investigations, although authorization must come from a court order.34

The Digital Republic Act adopted in October 2016 seeks to enhance individuals’ rights to decide and control the use of their personal data. Companies will face hefty fines if they fail to comply: with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation coming into force in 2018, CNIL will be able to fine up to 4 percent of total worldwide annual turnover for any data protection violations.35

A French order in February 2016 from the European Data Protection Authority ruled that Facebook was not allowed to track non-users in France or transfer personal data to U.S. servers. Facebook tracks the online movements of its users via its tracking cookies and plugins on third party websites, even if they are logged out. As part of a wider European investigation, CNIL fined Facebook EUR 150,000 (approximately US $170,000) in May 2017.36 In December 18, the CNIL also asked WhatsApp to correct its practice of transferring personal data to Facebook without the end user’s consent.37

Intimidation and Violence

Attacks against bloggers or journalists in retaliation for their online activities are not commonly reported in France. However, under the state of emergency in place until November 2017, human rights groups documented abusive searches and house arrests based on suspected terrorist-related activity online.38 Regional media have reported on a number of raids and seizures specifically targeting suspects for spreading terrorist propaganda online.39

Technical Attacks

According to the Global State of Information Security Survey 2018, French business losses related to cyberattacks grew by 50 percent in 2017 – resulting in more than EUR 2 million of average losses. More than 4,550 cybersecurity incidents were recorded by French companies in one year.40

During the presidential elections in May 2017, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team denounced that they were the “victim of a massive and coordinated hacking attack” after thousands of leaked e-mails and documents were dumped on the internet in a last minute effort to destabilize the race (see “Media, Diversity and Content Manipulation”).41 The Macron campaign team had previously confirmed being the target of phishing operations by a group of hackers and denounced “interference.”42

On France

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  • Global Freedom Score

    89 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    76 100 free