Articles / Possible Threat to French O…

Possible Threat to French Open Source Sites

John Fremlin writes: "Next week, the French National Assembly will vote on appending a chapter to the law limiting freedom of communication. As written, it would unambiguously prohibit hosting of content of unspecified provenance; that is, sites on which users could post material would be legally obligated to somehow determine the true identities and postal addresses of their users. The free software community is directly affected, as large Open Source projects don't have the requisite information about their contributors and could not legally be made available in France. Incidentally, several Open Source projects are hosted by (for example, consoletools and all of my programs), which would have to shut down."The amendment states that information providers are not liable to criminal or civil prosecution for any content unless they themselves had a part in its creation or did not remove it after it was pointed out to be libelous or otherwise illegal. This is reasonable; without it, it would be impractical for ISPs to provide access to newsgroups. However, it would imply that the strict laws against defamation do not apply in this context.

The problem is a specific symptom of a serious issue: traditionally, there has not existed absolute freedom of expression in democracies; some expressions are illegal, like the distribution of copyrighted material. It is impossible to keep it from being passed on by word of mouth, and the slow data rate makes it such an inefficient mode of transmission that it may be ignored anyway. Similarly, it is very difficult to enforce content restrictions on data flowing through the Internet. It would be possible only with extremely heavy handed action; that is, installing hardware at every PoP to let packets through only if they were known to be acceptable. In other words, it would necessarily destroy the Internet.

The traditional alternative is to punish the sources and distributors of illegal material. By this amendment, analogous Internet distributors (in practice, mostly ISPs and Web site owners) have been exempted. On the other hand, French citizens passing content to Internet distributors are obligated to identify themselves correctly, on pain of imprisonment, and the distributors are required to keep this information.

What is so inherently wrong with this arrangement? It is ineffective and disproportionately harms citizens who have no desire to spread calumny, official secrets, or news prejudicial to financial holdings. Any that do are not significantly impeded; they can still post their content to a server outside the French government's jurisdiction. The modification to the law does not explicitly mention the Internet or the fact that the French government only regulates a part of it, an arbitrary section, which doesn't change the fact that French citizens can access information with near indifference to geographical location.

This legislation will only make it more difficult for French citizens to set up servers sharing information between users. For example, it would mean that people posting to a French Slashdot clone would have to provide their true names and addresses, and each post to a mailing list archived on a French website would have to contain the name and address of the poster. The text of the amendment seems to imply that anyone making source code available in France would have to determine and detail the names and physical addresses of all contributors. Mirrors of most current Open Source projects would be illegal in France.

The legal status of Linux distribution CDs seems safer, as it could be argued that the distributor played a significant role in their production, though it would also imply that they could be sued if a coder (not affiliated in any way with the distributor) libeled someone in a comment.

In conclusion, the deputies of the French National Assembly are, probably unwittingly, intending to vote into law next Wednesday a bill that would prohibit making source software available in their country. Here is a list of their email addresses; tell them. If you take one with a surname starting with the same initial letter as your own, we should get a nice spread. ;-)

John Fremlin <> is at school in England. He's written a couple of kernel patches, one of which (the USB Microtek scanner driver with Oliver Neukum) is in the later 2.4.0test1-ac*, and some other software that appears on If is still up, you can find his homepage at Otherwise, there are partially broken mirrors: (old) and

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Recent comments

21 Jun 2000 16:29 Avatar humantypo

not surprising
this is not surprising coming from the country that is trying to implement the 35 hour work week. france is on the fast track to obscurity...

21 Jun 2000 15:08 Avatar rangek

Re: The French

The only effect this will have on Open Source will be to those within France. Anything and everything outside of France is uneffected.

What about projects, such as those mentioned in the article that are mainly hosted in France? While I agree this does hurt "them" (the French) more than it hurts "us" (the rest of the world) I don't think you can just write off the contributions of a whole country...

21 Jun 2000 14:58 Avatar wesmo

The French
Not to sound too arrogant, but if the French government, which represents its people, wish to shoot themselves in the foot by effectively cutting themselves off from a fair portion of the internet, then let them. The French people should be fighting this battle.

The only effect this will have on Open Source will be to those within France. Anything and everything outside of France is uneffected.

Those non-French citizens having information hosted within France will need to look for new homes, more or less. French citizens, and the information they wish to share, are really the ones being persecuted.

As history shows us, along the scale of democracy, the French government isn't very far towards the 'full democracy' side of the fence, and examples like this only prove that the government of France wishes to takes steps away from democracy...

21 Jun 2000 14:49 Avatar mathieur

petition !
go there and sign ! (

(send a mail to ([vos papiers]...))

21 Jun 2000 12:12 Avatar timmyd

my view
i do not live in france, but how can the enforcers enforce this? like first they have to find out if you are from france or not, then they actually have to find who you are, so they can find out how to get the names or whatever, assuming you are doing something where people can comment anonymously like slashdot. to me, an unenforcible law is no law at all.


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