French President Proposes Law Blocking Websites Over Fake News

Emmanuel Macron, president of France, is proposing a law that would crack down on fake news. The law would allow authorities to take down and even block websites.

It’s not hard to point to the previous US national election as being a source of the concept of fake news. US President Donald Trump frequently points to unfavourable coverage of his administration as “fake news”. Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t fake news that is in circulation. In fact, some say fake news propelled Trump to the white house thanks in part to Russian troll factories. This is something that Russia has denied on multiple occasions.

If anything at all, it puts into perspective not only the roll of the media, but the influence it has on societies around the world. It also highlights how media can be misused to influence politics. The debate around what constitutes fake news and what constitutes journalism has ultimately shaken the realm of journalism.

In fact, one could argue, it has shaken it to the point where scrutiny over the media has become excessive. More specifically, every source is suspect and can’t be trusted period and the only sources that can be trusted are the ones that the reader simply agrees with. This, of course, goes to the opposite extreme of an earlier time where it was a problem that everything that is read is to be believed. In fact, some traditional media outlets had no problem constantly repeating “don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” sometimes as a method to discredit online sources more than simply encouraging a healthy dose of skepticism.

This is why the debate over fake news has been problematic. Now, major media outlets are accused of being the peddlers of fake news. This includes CNN, NBC, New York Times, and Fox News. All this is happening right when online start-ups are challenging traditional media outlets. So, already, it is an extremely messy debate.

Now, enter French president Emmanuel Macron. According to Politico Europe, Macron is proposing a law that would crack down on fake news. From the report:

“When fake news are spread, it will be possible to go to a judge … and if appropriate have content taken down, user accounts deleted and ultimately websites blocked,” Macron said.

“Platforms will have more transparency obligations regarding sponsored content to make public the identity of sponsors and of those who control them, but also limits on the amounts that can be used to sponsor this content.”

Sites that distribute fake news would face punishment and media regulators would have more power to fight them.

During the French presidential election campaign, Macron banned Russian outlets RT and Sputnik from his campaign events, arguing they spread false information.

(Hat tip: Carlo Blengino)

It’s hard to find details on this law other than the fact that sources are saying it would have judicial oversight.

Critics have slammed the proposal including political opponents. According to Reuters, the French government is taking heat over the proposal. From the report:

“Only authoritarian regimes try to control what the truth is,” said senior conservative senator Bruno Retailleau. Freedom of expression carries risks, but that’s better “than the temptation to control minds,” he said.

Twitter users in France made up their own fake news with the hashthag #InventeDesFakeNews (or InventYourFakeNews), which ranged from seeing corporate executives donate money to cut France’s debt load to seeing dead singers alive. Meanwhile, Macron’s opponents across the political spectrum slammed the plan.

“Is France still a democracy if it muzzles its citizens? This is very worrying!” National Front leader Marine Le Pen said on Twitter.

Attempts to regulate speech online walk a fine line, which critics says can amount to censorship. A similar law in Germany led authorities to briefly block a satirical magazine’s Twitter account on Wednesday after it parodied anti-Muslim comments.

There are a lot of questions to raise here over the concept of combating fake news. The most obvious question is where that line is when determining what is and is not fake news? Is it what many might think of where a source is deliberately spreading false information? Is it whenever there is an inaccurate story somewhere? If it is something that is inaccurate, what if a legitimate source of news makes an unintentional mistake? After all, journalists are human too.

The next immediate question surrounds who determines what is and is not fake news? Are we using an independent panel of people to determine this? What if a politician or a political supporter accuses accurate news as fake news simply because it is unfavourable?

There is also an underlying concern that can be raised if you support the idea. It’s a great idea to have judicial oversight, however, there is the question of efficiency. How long will it take for an accusation to be processed? If there is a legitimately fake story being spread, will it take a week to order that content to be taken down? If so, fake news is often spread in the manner of hours. As such, there is that concern that the court system will always be playing catch up. In the mean time, the damage will already be done for that particular fake story.

In a similar train of thought, even if one were to be blocking a whole website, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end for content to be spread from that site. It’s been the case for years now that news spreads on social media. All it takes is at least one person outside the country (or even continent) to spread the news on social media. It’s a trivial task for people who may be knowingly spreading false information to say that it’s news the powers that be don’t want you to read. That, of course, helps sell the information to people and can legitimize it to some degree.

At this point in time, the proposed idea raises a lot more questions than answers. Some accuse the concept of blatant censorship while others say it will protect society from foreign influences. At this stage, it’s hard to tell what to make of the idea without it being more fully formed.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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