The most profound social media ban that never happened
France’s recent flirtation with social media crackdowns undermines Europe’s moral high ground regarding internet governance
Banner: French President Emmanuel Macron addresses mayors of cities affected by recent unrest during a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, July 4, 2023. (Source: Ludovic Marin via Reuters)
It could be characterized as the most profound social media ban that never happened.
It all started on June 27, 2023, when a French police officer shot dead a teenager for failing to stop when ordered by traffic police. Protests and unrest, including riots, erupted across France, lasting for days. On July 4, discussing the riots with the mayors of two hundred communes, French President Emmanuel Macron made an extraordinary remark: “We need to have a think about social media, about the bans we need to put in place. And when things get out of hand, we may need to put ourselves in a position to regulate or cut them off.” Soon after, Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for Europe’s Internal Market, said in an interview:
When there is hateful content, content that calls – for example – for revolt, that also calls for killing and burning of cars, [social media companies] will be required to delete [the content] immediately. If they fail to do so, they will be immediately sanctioned […] If they don’t act immediately, then yes, at that point we’ll be able not only to impose a fine but also to ban the operation [of the platforms] on our territory.
While it is unlikely that such laws or actions would pass a constitutional test, and taking into account the fact that Macron and Breton’s comments should be viewed through the lens of their roles as politicians, the implications of their remarks are significant and far reaching. For the leader of France, one of the most celebrated democracies in the world, verbalizing such an idea opens the door for comparisons with less democratic and authoritarian states. According to Statista, since 2015, at least seventy-one countries have blocked or restricted access to social media in some way, including China, Iran, Vietnam, Russia, Turkey, India, and Uganda. Macron’s statement suggests to the world that these countries may have been right all along: that governments have the legitimate right and authority to determine how users consume information. Whether intentional or not, France is normalizing a position that authoritarian governments have been trying to advance for quite some time.
President Macron has spent significant energy working to ensure that France is, as he says, “digitally sovereign,” supporting strong regulation and the strengthening of Europe’s digital environment. During a 2020 speech, Macron articulated his vision by stating, “[T]o build the Europe of tomorrow, our standards cannot be under American control, our infrastructures, ports and airports under Chinese capital and our digital networks under Russian pressure….European freedom of action depends on this economic and digital sovereignty.” Since then, France has been a strong critic of big tech companies, claiming that France’s (and Europe’s) main problem is “the hegemony of the digital giants and…data [leaks] outside the European continent.”
In many ways, France has had a mixed record on its approach to an open internet. But President Macron has also spoken convincingly about the importance of French and European leadership in advancing a democratically aligned, deliberately different approach to the internet than that of China and authoritarian states. In 2018, during the opening of the Internet Governance Forum, the annual United Nations multistakeholder gathering of the internet community, Macron talked about the “false possibilities [the world is] currently offered” – the US vision of the internet and the Chinese one – and how, he believed, we should move away from both of them.
In particular, commenting about China’s vision for internet governance, Macron noted:
On the other side, there is [an internet governance] system where governments have a strong role, but this is the Chinese style internet: an internet where the government drives innovations and control, where the major players in artificial intelligence are held by the government – I have great respect for this model, great respect. We do a lot with China, but we do not have the same democratic preferences, we do not have the same cultural references on subjects, we do not have the same relationship with individual freedoms – that is a reality. And, so in that internet, the state has found its place, but it is hegemonic.
In effect, what Macron was asking the internet community for was a vote of trust that Europe, along with France, could play a transformative role to the way we could think of internet regulation: Europe could offer a viable alternative to the existing undemocratic version. As Macron noted, it would be regulation with the intention of building “this new path where governments, along with internet players, civil societies, and all actors are able to regulate properly.” Fast forward to July 2023: ironically, Macron’s knee-jerk reaction to the riots would reflect an approach closer to that of China’s, representing a constitutional crisis threatening the integrity of the internet .
For Macron to implement a law banning social media, he would need to deploy certain filtering mechanisms and tools. For instance, the French government would have to block or tamper with domain names, filter or block certain terms, create a blacklist of IP addresses, force online providers to remove certain content or search results, or mandate the use of internet blocking software in schools and libraries around the country. China, for instance, employs a combination of the above techniques – persistently blocking keywords, undesirable websites and, of course, forcing companies to remove content it deems inappropriate. Other countries like Morocco and Egypt opt for a simpler approach and only filter a selection of URLs. The effectiveness of each method really depends on how far a government is willing to go, how much authority it’s willing to exert, and how intermediaries and courts interpret government orders. While in many cases, savvy users are able to mitigate restrictions through the use of VPNs or by using alternate or proxy IP addresses, the impact on freedoms of association, assembly, expression and other universal human rights is usually considerably disproportionate. And in the case of serious restriction efforts, such as those undertaken by China and Iran, there is zero tolerance for VPNs that have not been pre-approved by the government.
France is not China, of course, but there is also something to be said about the fine line the French government is walking when it comes to regulating the internet environment. For example, back in 2020, the government tried to push through the infamous Avia law, which required social media platforms to remove manifestly illegal content within twenty-four hours – a measure that would have been close to impossible to enforce and so subjective that it would amount to government censorship. In the end, France’s constitutional court declared that the scope of the law was too wide, posing a threat to freedom of expression.
More recently, France’s draft legislation to regulate and ensure the security of cyberspace, in conjunction with its draft Military Planning Law, provide another example of overreach and a potential fracturing of the internet. Under the draft law, the National Information Systems Authority (ANSSI) will be given excessive powers that could see the agency, among others, forcing DNS resolvers and browsers to block domain names or redirect users to government websites. “For a democracy like France to ratify such sweeping authorities might set a troubling precedent that could inspire similar measures in democratic and non-democratic jurisdictions alike – with global implications for security and online freedom,” a group of distinguished technologists has warned. Regardless of whether Macron is able to act on his most recent remarks, the message coming from the French government shows an increasing willingness to grant the state more authority over the internet, disregarding the need for inclusive governance and the rights of individual users.
Domestic internet policy affects global Internet policy, especially when it comes from countries that we rely on to advocate for an open and global internet. And France has made various commitments to this front. It is a member of the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of thirty-seven governments collaborating to advance internet freedom. France is also one of the co-founders of the Christchurch Call, a multistakeholder initiative that seeks to address terrorism online by committing that any “regulatory or policy measures [should be] consistent with the free, open and secure internet and international human rights law.” Similarly, France has signed on to the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, a US-led initiative that affirms the signatories’ intention to “work toward an environment that reinforces our democratic systems and promotes active participation of every citizen in democratic processes…maintains secure and reliable connectivity… [and] resists efforts to splinter the global internet.” The actions of France jeopardize these initiatives and potentially weaken their standing.
Europe at a crossroads
All this creates various challenges for Europe as well. Europe’s new Digital Services Act (DSA), a comprehensive approach to regulating large digital platforms in a democratically aligned manner, is currently in the early stage of implementation, with many questions remaining around its impact in practice. The DSA has been years in the making, with civil society and other stakeholders working hard to ensure that it is structured in such a way that upholds Europe’s democratic values. Though the DSA may allow for some temporary restrictions in exceptional cases, these are not to be decided arbitrarily or taken lightly. It is important for the law to continue to be considered as a responsible attempt at bringing more accountability to a fraught online world without legitimizing the state-centric Chinese approach.
However, Breton suggesting that the scope of the DSA could be expanded to permit social media bans undermines Europe’s international standing on matters of internet governance, and weakens the clarity and credibility of the European Commission midway through the design of the law’s implementation mechanism. When Europe passed its data protection law, GDPR, it quickly became the global standard; Europe, and Breton, are no strangers to the significant impact European regulations can have on the world, both legally and by example. Playing politics with the DSA, as Breton’s remarks did, risks derailing the entire enterprise at a critical moment.
The timing for that politicization couldn’t be worse, especially given what’s currently at stake. At the international level, internet governance discussions have intensified at the United Nations, with competing and sometimes contradictory visions for the internet emerging. One of these new visions is the Secretary-General’s Global Digital Compact (GDC), which is shaping up to position governments at the heart of the internet’s future. For China, Russia, and other authoritarian states, this process is an opportunity to advocate for centralized sovereign governance, which would support much of their domestic agendas. Many G77 countries view it as an opportunity to assert voice and agency in a system that doesn’t offer many avenues for such influence. What was once a consensus of norms is splintering for a myriad of reasons. The end result could be disastrous for the internet we all rely on.
Europe’s submission to the GDC states, “Restrictions of and on the internet threaten the open and global cyberspace, as well as the rule of law, human rights and democracy – the core values of the European Union (EU).” Breton’s remarks discredit such statements and present an opportunity for other countries to point their fingers at Europe, asking how it can instruct other countries to uphold a free and open internet while simultaneously making the case for a “sovereign internet” for member states seeking to shutdown platforms.
What is most alarming about these remarks is how quickly they temper what has been to this point a great deal of excitement around European policymaking for the internet. With the US largely absent in the debate over models for domestic tech governance, India increasingly undemocratic in its approach, and others taking more piecemeal actions, Europe has served as the leading global democratic stand-in. As the world waits to see what the DSA will mean in practice, having one of its key enforcers suggesting it is an avenue for states to limit expression places the law in a precarious position. For a leading member of the EU to float actions so diametrically opposed to the regulatory regime it just helped to forge is as disappointing as it is dangerous.
Coordination among Europe’s institutions and its member states becomes an urgent matter as negotiations about the Global Digital Compact kick off in September 2023. As always, Europe will present a united front. Where Europe will have a problem, though, is convincing the rest of the world that it can lead by example and serve as a positive role model for the governance of the internet. On that particular point, words matter; it seems that Europe is now more exposed than ever before.
Konstantinos Komaitis is a nonresident fellow with the Democracy + Tech Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Cite this commentary:
Konstantinos Komaitis, “The most profound social media ban that never happened,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), July 28, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/07/28/the-most-profound-social-media-ban-that-never-happened.