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French Internet Providers Arrested

On 06-May-96, under orders of a judge investigating pedophile circles in France, French police seized computer equipment and arrested the heads of two Internet service providers for allegedly allowing their services to propagate Usenet newsgroups that the judge considered to contain elements such as "pornographic photographs of minors." The distribution of such material is illegal in France. [And in many other countries, including the U.S. -Tonya]

Two days later, during a professional Internet exposition held at La Defense [near Paris], the French Association of Internet Providers (AFPI) held a news conference to denounce the judicial act. Francois Benveniste, director of major Internet provider Calvacom and spokesman for the group – one of whose founding members was jailed – said, "We are all guilty."

Benveniste was referring to Usenet; a portion of the online world that contains as many as sixteen thousand discussion groups that carry information on a wide variety of topics. Mr. Benveniste said that, under current law, there was no way for a French operator to provide access to these groups, because the law assumed the provider was responsible for the content. However, given the volume of Usenet, no operator could possibly monitor the contents of more than 100,000 electronic documents daily. Benveniste called upon authorities to sit down with operators to formulate an legal statue that would permit them to operate legally – without fear of being jailed.

Together with two other heads of the AFPI – Patrick Robin of Imaginet and Jerome Lecat of Iway – Benveniste announced the immediate closure of all newsgroups until 15-May-96 as a symbolic gesture. National operator France Telecom, which provides the backbone service "Transpac" and has recently started its own "Wannadoo" service, is moving in concert with the private operators, since the same laws apply to all.

For this week, there will be only one newsgroup, <fr.netware.internet>, generally available to the estimated 80,000 to 100,000 private Internet subscribers in France.

What remains unanswered is why these two particular operators were chosen out of about 48 in all, when practically all of them (including state-owned France Telecom) carry the same newsgroups. These two providers are among the larger providers in France: Francenet was one of the first, and Worldnet was one of the first to have "popular" prices.

Another unanswered question is why this action has come at this time, when the operators’ association has been holding talks with the Minister of Telecoms Francois Fillon for some time, and was recently assured no access provider would be held responsible for content.

Meanwhile, after considerable confiscation of equipment, the two men jailed have been released, but remain under judicial authority.

[This ends the news portion of Richard’s report, which was originally published in "Metropole, Paris Online." Below, I’ve included some of Richard’s informal comments which further illustrate what’s happening in France. -Tonya]

Although the majority of subscribers are aware that Internet providers are not responsible for content, the same cannot be said of TV news. The 08-May-96 main 20:00 CET edition of state television France 2 news gave the distinct impression that Worldnet originated the illegal content. Statements made by a Francenet spokesman were largely buried under a cascade of images, from Playboy’s home page to outright porn (though no kiddie porn). I saw more flesh in news reports about the arrests than I have seen in 18 months of Internet use.

As a content provider myself, I have to think about covering a subject such as Paris, where much public art and many billboards include representations of the unclothed human body. My site could end up with an X rating even though it is part and parcel of the public (and even state-sponsored) atmosphere here.

Both at the press conference and in some TV news reports, there were mentions of software that users can use to filter suspect content. I think it is in our interest to promote such "monkey" software: hear no porn, see no porn, speak no porn. Well, maybe not the last one – pornography is a legitimate form of expression and has been since people were drawing in caves. Such "monkey" software would leave a virtual warning sign at the cave’s entrance.

Additional reports on this topic may be found at the Metropole Web site.


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