A guide to internet censorship in France and how to bypass surveillance and blocks with a French VPN

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France is a country with a population of 67 million people. It is a relatively well-off country with an average income of $2594 per month. However, the poverty rate stands at about 10 percent of the population – and is higher in the city of Paris, where it is 14% – and jumps up to 40% in certain neighborhoods. Thus, France can be understood to be an extremely polarized nation where the top 20% of earners take home five times more than the bottom 20%.

This disparity between the richest and the poorest members of society, and a general belief that not enough is being done to protect the poorer classes, has been the driving force for the yellow vest protests that have marred France since November 2018. Those protests are ongoing.

Despite the high rates of poverty in urban areas of France, Internet penetration rates are 1% higher than the EU average – with 86% of people able to access the internet. This is primarily due to intense competition between Internet service providers in metropolitan France, which has led to moderately priced high-speed internet access.

However, France is a country that maintains high levels of digital surveillance, and works closely with international actors to monitor and track citizens for intelligence purposes.

Political Overview

France is a representative democracy officially recognized as a semi-presidential republic. In such a system, governing is split into an executive, legislative, and judicial branch. The country has a bicameral parliament existing of the National Assembly and the Senate. These are charged with the legislative. Executive power is held by both the President of the Republic and the government.

The government in run by a Prime Minister and ministers. The Prime Minister is decided via elections every four years. At that time he is appointed by the President and becomes responsible to parliament.

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron of the On The Move! (OTM) party became President. OTM is a centrist, social-liberal political party which also won a clear majority in legislative elections held later that year. Macron has promised reforms of the tax system, social welfare, education, and immigration policies.

Overall, France is a country that enforces strong democratic processes. Elections happen in a free and open manner, and there are robust protections for both civil and political rights. However, due to a rise in terrorist attacks, France has undergone a shift in which constitutional protections have been curbed in order to provide extra power to law enforcement.

A state of emergency which lasted from November 2015 until October 2017, was only finally de-escalated due to the introduction of an anti-terrorism bill that gave the police the ability to continue enjoying the increased powers for surveillance imposed during the state of emergency.

During this period of upheaval, anti-Muslim sentiment has grown within the nation and minorities have reported feeling excluded from France's political sphere. However, on the whole women, religious minorities, and minorities such as the LGBTQ community enjoy the freedom to participate openly in civil society and politics.

The ability to form new opposition groups is available, and there are opportunities for emerging political parties or NGOs to express themselves openly and gain exposure.

Censorship

Although France does have an open and fair media, it is also true that journalists can be forced to reveal their sources if it is deemed of public interest. This is problematic, because it can discourage people from coming forward to impart knowledge about events, or to complain about government or police abuses.

Despite this slight drawback, it is generally agreed that the press have the freedom to express dissenting opinions and to report openly. One significant exception to this occurred in the run up to the 2017 Presidential elections. At that time, important documents stolen by hackers from Macron campaign were leaked online.

Those insider documents, which were allegedly hacked by Russian government operatives, were instantly subjected to a national media blackout – in order to restrict the negative impact that those documents might have on the election.

According to insiders at the electoral commission, who issued the nationwide blackout, information contained within the leaks had been fabricated and its reporting by the media could have led to election bias.

Online, there is a slightly higher level of censorship. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, websites that contain terrorist information or that condone terrorism in any way are subjected to a blackout.

In France, the Central Office for the Fight against Crime related to Information and Communication Technology (OCLCTIC) is charged with creating a blacklist of sites that French ISPs must block. That list is reviewed every four months. OCLCTIC begins by asking the website to remove offending content, and if it fails to do so, ISP blocks are ordered.

Complaints have been made that the ability to block websites is done without proper judicial oversight. However, content removal is generally accepted to be fair and to only occur in response to website content that incites hatred, racism, Holocaust denial, that contains child pornography, copyright infringement, or content that is defamatory.

It is worth noting that while the interior minister has never resorted to using the power, anti-terrorism laws passed in 2017 do permit social media websites to be blocked if they are found to contain content that incites or glorifies acts of terrorism.

Draft laws proposed by Macron government also sought to permit blocking of websites during elections. According to the government, those blocks would be used to ensure disinformation does not color the electoral process. The law was eventually rejected by the Senate.

Surveillance

Since 2014, France has experienced numerous terrorist attacks. Those terrifying incidents have been used by police to justify the passage of laws that permit for an extension to surveillance capabilities within the Nation.

An intelligence bill passed in July 2015 permits intelligence agencies to perform digital surveillance without the need of a warrant. In addition, ISPs must install algorithms that analyze users' metadata for suspicious behavior.

An addendum to that law tacked on in 2016, permits police to snoop not only on people suspected of terrorism or criminal activities – but also people who are likely to be related or part of an entourage with a person of interest.

A law passed in November 2015 allows for all electronic communications coming in and out of France to be intercepted for national security reasons. And another law passed in 2016, allows judges and other investigative forces to perform surveillance, including by bugging private locations and using phone eavesdropping devices.

An anti-terrorism bill passed in 2017 made temporary police powers that had been enforced during the nation State of Emergency permanent. It includes provision for monitoring wireless communications, except for WiFi.

An addendum to a military spending bill passed in 2018 permits France internal and external intelligence agencies to share data. This is concerning considering that France is part for the 9 Eyes surveillance cooperative with the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and Germany among others.

Finally, French authorities are permitted to install malwareu2014such as keystroke logging software, spyware, or Trojans on a suspect computer. A warrant must be obtained first. However, this law combined with the ability to snoop on people believed to be in a terrorist's entourage – open the door for just about anybody in France to be legally hacked. 

In France copyright piracy is enforced with legislation protecting all forms of original creative work and intellectual property. ISPs enforce blocks on a large number of websites, including all sites that provide either direct or indirect access to streams or downloads of pirated content. Thus BitTorrent sites such as the Pirate Bay and illegal streaming websites are blocked.

In addition, a new law expected to be passed in the summer of 2019 will allow ISPs to begin blocking proxy websites and services used in to bypass ISP blocks of streaming, BitTorrent, and other websites involved in disseminating copyrighted works. In addition, French legislators have promised that they will begin enforcing article 13 with no delay.

France currently has a three strikes and you are out law that allows ISPs to cut off people who are repeatedly found to have accessed pirated material has been dismantled. However, the national assembly has voted to kill that law (but it is likely to pass through the Senate). ISPs are known to have worked with copyright holders in order to help them engage in lawsuits and to send out prospecting invoicing letters.

For this reason, it can be understood to be dangerous to engage in any online piracy without the use of a VPN to conceal those activities. Failure to do could result in your internet connection being cut off. Check out our VPN for France or cloud backup for France guides for details about the best services in the country.

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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