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France Is Trying — and Mostly Failing — to Block Websites Accused of Promoting Terrorism

The attempted banning of five websites marks the first time French authorities have used a new counterterrorism law that allows sites to be blocked without a judge’s approval.

by Pierre Longeray
Mar 17 2015, 10:30pm

Imagen vía Ministerio del Interior de Francia/VICE News

France has attempted to block access to five websites, the first time the government has used a provision of legislation passed in November 2014 that authorizes officials to ban — without obtaining a court order — sites that promote terrorism.

The first site to be blocked was islamic-news.info, a pro-jihad site described by Radio France Internationale (RFI) journalist David Thomson as having "very little influence." Octave Klava, the director of the site's hosting company OVH, tweeted Monday that he had not been forewarned of the official blocking.

As of Tuesday, the four other sites banned by the government were still accessible from French browsers, raising questions over the measure's efficacy. Speaking at a press conference Monday, a spokesman for the French interior ministry explained that the application of the law was still being "fine tuned." Contacted Tuesday by VICE News, the interior ministry declined to answer further questions about the blocked sites.

One of the blacklisted sites is Jihad Zone, an English-language website that publishes al Qaeda's magazine Inspire, as well as videos by the Islamic State (IS) and the al Nusra Front, a militant group operating in Syria and Lebanon. The site also dispenses advice on learning Arabic. On March 5, the site's editor announced that he would be taking a short leave of absence and that the site would be on a temporary hiatus.

AFP also listed al-Hayat Media Center, which publishes IS propaganda, as another blocked site. Several people have since pointed out that al-Hayat doesn't have a website — only a Twitter account — and that the blocked site belongs to an independent IS sympathizer.

The third site targeted by French authorities is Jihadmin, which publishes the propaganda videos of several militant organizations and doesn't claim allegiance to any particular group.

The fourth banned site is an Arabic-language website called "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," an amateur-looking blog with only three posts dating back to October 2014.

French magazine Télérama revealed Monday that as many as 50 additional sites could be taken down in the coming weeks.

The measure that allows the sites to be blocked was one of several counterterrorism laws adopted by the French parliament in November 2014 as the country reacted to becoming the largest Western contributor of jihadists to extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

The website ban marks the second practical application the new counterterrorism legislation, which also permits officials to stop suspected jihadists from leaving the country. In February, three men and three women had their passports confiscated.

The internet has been in the French government's line of fire since November, two months before the January terror attacks that left 17 people dead in Paris. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve estimated in November that "90 percent of those who join terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria leave because of propaganda put out on the internet," a figure that has since been contested. Several reports have suggested that the recent wave of homegrown militants actually became radicalized in French prisons.

Previously, requests to block sites had to be authorized by a judge. Today, the police can make the decision without a judge's stamp of approval. The new measure mirrors the 2011 "Loppsi 2" law, which authorizes officials to block sites that host child pornography.

In theory, officials are supposed to notify the hosts or publishers of a request to remove their sites. If the sites have not been taken down within 24 hours, or if the host companies refuse to comply with the order, authorities can go directly to internet service providers to request that they block access.

Free speech advocates have denounced the method of "administrative blocking" as arbitrary, inefficient, and infringing on civil liberties. In response to these accusations, the government appointed magistrate Alexandre Linden, of the National Commission of IT and Liberties (Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés — CNIL), France's data protection authority, to monitor the blocking requests filed by law enforcement officers and other authorities.

Critics have also decried the futility of the measure, since there are many ways to circumvent such bans. The sites are only blocked in France, and software that makes users appear to be from another country is easily accessible.

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray