Facing Sweeping Surveillance Bill, French Public Falls Between Alarm and Indifference

Anti-surveillance demonstration in France. Photo via Amnesty International.

Anti-surveillance demonstration in France. Photo via Amnesty International.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and despite vehement opposition from civil liberties groups, France's parliament passed in May 2015 a bill allowing the government to monitor the phone calls and emails of suspected terrorists without prior authorization from a judge. The bill also requires Internet service providers to install so-called “black boxes” that sweep up and analyze metadata on millions of web users, and forces them to make that data freely available to intelligence organizations. The bill also allows intelligence agents to plant microphones, cameras, and keystroke loggers in the homes of suspected terrorists. Under the law, the government can authorize surveillance for vaguely defined reasons such as “major foreign policy interests” and preventing “organized delinquency.”

Civil liberties groups including Amnesty International, Article 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Global Voices Advox joined a letter written by leading French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net, published on September 30 addressed to French MPs and suggesting a series amendments to the bill. They write:

With this new bill, parliament is about to approve new disproportionate surveillance measures to monitor international communications. Based on the principle of massive collections of data, the bill seeks to legitimise the civil and human rights abuses revealed by Edward Snowden about the practice of intelligence agencies such as the ones in the US and the UK. As a crucial part of the global Internet traffic goes through French submarine cables, this law would put France in the list of countries with sweeping surveillance capabilities.

Despite firm criticism from civil liberties groups, the bill has faced minimal opposition from the public and the political classes. French President François Hollande then asked the Constitutional Council to review the bill after it was definitively approved in June, marking the first time that a president has deferred to the courts before allowing a law to go into effect. French website Les Moutons enragés explained the process, summing up a detailed report by Nextimpact :

…le Conseil constitutionnel avait censuré un des articles du projet de loi gouvernemental, celui encadrant la surveillance internationale. Pourquoi cette censure ? Principalement, parce que la disposition législative renvoyait à décret en Conseil d’État le soin de définir les modalités d’exploitation, de conservation et de destruction des renseignements collectés. Un joli cas d’incompétence négative [puisque cette matière est réservée par la constitution au législateur]

[…] Après une longue période d’incertitude, le gouvernement a annoncé la semaine dernière le dépôt surprise d’une proposition de loi pour combler cette lacune. […] par ce biais, il évite le passage par un projet de loi, qui l’aurait obligé à publier une étude d’impact. Une étape potentiellement douloureuse où il aurait dû détailler le coût de ces mesures notamment.

Déjà, les articles sont beaucoup plus denses que la partie censurée par le Conseil constitutionnel. C’était prévisible puisque le gouvernement a dû (faire) replacer dans la future loi des dispositions qu’il tentait de publier dans un décret secret.

…the Constitutional Council struck down one of the articles of the government bill defining international surveillance.

Why? Mainly because the bill included a provision about the terms and conditions of exploiting, keeping and deleting the collected information in the form of a decree. A perfect case of reverse incompetence [according to the French Constitution, the subject pertains to Parliament only].

After a long period of vacillation, last week the government announced the surprise deposition of a bill designed to fill the gap […] thus avoiding passing legislation which would have made it necessary to undertake an impact assessment. The latter is a potentially troublesome step which would have involved revealing, in particular, details of the cost of these measures.

The articles are in fact more much involved than the part struck down by the Constitutional Council. This is hardly surprising, as the government had to replace the provisions  they had previously attempted to pass by secret decree.

For a detailed review of the provisions of this additional bill on international surveillance, read the comprehensive report published by French magazine l'Obs on September 9.

Civil liberties groups came immediately back to the fore after the broad validation of the law. Amnesty International France denouced the bill as a “big blow against human rights.”

La Quadrature du Net stated on its website on Sept. 15:

Such a mass surveillance system participates in a race for worldwide spying, and positions France as an enemy of fundamental freedoms. Since this bill clearly is a mere legalization of secret practices implemented since 2008, the time has come for the public opinion and its representatives to clearly express their views on this arms race of the 21st century.

On the legal front, action is also being taken before the French courts, under a coordinated effort by European Digital Rights (EDRI, a Brussels-based group.

On 3 September 2015, the non-profit Internet Service Providers (ISPs) French Data Network (FDN) and the FDN Federation (FFDN) as well as a digital rights advocacy group La Quadrature du Net announced the introduction of two legal challenges before the French Council of State against the Internet surveillance activities of French foreign intelligence services, Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE).

Mobilization around the bill is picking up speed, albeit on the late side.

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