How long before all browsers are required by law to prevent users from opening allegedly infringing sites?

Mozilla’s Open Policy & Advocacy blog has news about a worrying proposal from the French government:

In a well-intentioned yet dangerous move to fight online fraud, France is on the verge of forcing browsers to create a dystopian technical capability. Article 6 (para II and III) of the SREN Bill would force browser providers to create the means to mandatorily block websites present on a government provided list.

The post explains why this is an extremely dangerous approach:

A world in which browsers can be forced to incorporate a list of banned websites at the software-level that simply do not open, either in a region or globally, is a worrying prospect that raises serious concerns around freedom of expression. If it successfully passes into law, the precedent this would set would make it much harder for browsers to reject such requests from other governments.

If a capability to block any site on a government blacklist were required by law to be built in to all browsers, then repressive governments would be given an enormously powerful tool. There would be no way around that censorship, short of hacking the browser code. That might be an option for open source coders, but it certainly won’t be for the vast majority of ordinary users. As the Mozilla post points out:

Such a move will overturn decades of established content moderation norms and provide a playbook for authoritarian governments that will easily negate the existence of censorship circumvention tools.

It is even worse than that. If such a capability to block any site were built in to browsers, it’s not just authoritarian governments that would be rubbing their hands with glee: the copyright industry would doubtless push for allegedly infringing sites to be included on the block list too. We know this, because it has already done it in the past, as discussed in Walled Culture the book (free digital versions).

Not many people now remember, but in 2004, BT (British Telecom) caused something of a storm when it created CleanFeed:

British Telecom has taken the unprecedented step of blocking all illegal child pornography websites in a crackdown on abuse online. The decision by Britain’s largest high-speed internet provider will lead to the first mass censorship of the web attempted in a Western democracy.

Here’s how it worked:

Subscribers to British Telecom’s internet services such as BTYahoo and BTInternet who attempt to access illegal sites will receive an error message as if the page was unavailable. BT will register the number of attempts but will not be able to record details of those accessing the sites.

The key justification for what the Guardian called “the first mass censorship of the web attempted in a Western democracy” was that it only blocked illegal child sexual abuse material Web sites. It was therefore an extreme situation requiring an exceptional solution. But seven years later, the copyright industry were able to convince a High Court judge to ignore that justification, and to take advantage of CleanFeed to block a site, Newzbin 2, that had nothing to do with child sexual abuse material, and therefore did not require exceptional solutions:

Justice Arnold ruled that BT must use its blocking technology CleanFeed – which is currently used to prevent access to websites featuring child sexual abuse – to block Newzbin 2.

Exactly the logic used by copyright companies to subvert CleanFeed could be used to co-opt the censorship capabilities of browsers with built-in Web blocking lists. As with CleanFeed, the copyright industry would doubtless argue that since the technology already exists, why not to apply it to tackling copyright infringement too?

That very real threat is another reason to fight this pernicious, misguided French proposal. Because if it is implemented, it will be very hard to stop it becoming yet another technology that the copyright world demands should be bent to its own selfish purposes.

Featured image by Stanley Kubrick.

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