French lawmakers debated draft legislation Thursday that is intended to limit the spread of fake news and disinformation during election periods.
French President Emmanuel Macron signaled earlier this year that action would be taken to limit the spread of fake news after alleged Russian interference during last year’s French presidential campaign.
However, critics say the proposed laws threaten freedom of expression and could give the government undue control over information.
Deputies in the National Assembly are considering two proposals put forward by Macron’s party, La République En Marche, one applying to any election and the other specifically to presidential elections.
The proposed legislation would allow election candidates and parties to call upon a judge to put a stop to the diffusion of “false information” during the three-month run-up to a national election – particularly on social media.
It could allow judges to close down or block websites that are ruled to be disseminating fake news. They would be able to pass judgments within 48 hours as to whether “false information” could have an impact on the elections.
The law would also authorize the French media council to take foreign state-controlled broadcasters off the air if they were attempting to destabilize France – a measure seen as directed at Russian state news outlets.
Following debate, the National Assembly will vote on the legislation Thursday evening. If it passes, it will then go to Senate to be debated and voted on before it is signed into law.
France is not alone in expressing concern about potential Russian interference in election campaigning. Russia has also been accused of trying to influence votes in Britain and Germany. Meanwhile, investigations continue in the US into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Macron held talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg last month in Paris as part of the President’s efforts to tackle the use of social media to spread fake news. Zuckerberg also testified before the European Parliament.
‘Crude attempt to control information’
Naima Moutchou, a lawmaker for La République En Marche who helped draft the bill, dismissed criticism Thursday, telling radio station Europe 1 that there were various safeguards in the bill “allowing the protection of liberty and expression.”
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told the France Inter radio station that the proposed laws would allow the electorate “to better exercise democracy.”
However, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leading figure of the far left and head of the France Unbowed party, wrote on his website that the bill represented a “crude attempt to control information.”
Lawmaker Éric Ciotti, of the opposition Republican party, tweeted that the law put forward by La République En Marche “carries great dangers for our democracy” and that he would vote against it. “The idea of ‘verifiable facts’ opens the way to a particularly dangerous ‘official truth,’” he said.
France’s National Union of Journalists described the law as “liberticide” in a statement published in March. “The law threatens freedom of expression and freedom to inform,” it said. “This law which says it wants to protect against the risk of information manipulation during the electoral period could also become a way to threaten the work of professional journalists.”
International media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which warned the legislation could have “perverse effects,” put forward alternative proposals. “It is understandable and justifiable to try to prevent manipulative content from circulating online, but the solutions proposed in the bill could be unworkable and even counterproductive,” it said.
The editorial board for national broadsheet Le Monde called the law “useless” and said French parliamentarians “seem to have deliberately chosen to compose an ineffective law so that it is not dangerous.”
Alexandre Alaphilippe, executive director of EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based non-profit organization that researches disinformation on social media, was similarly critical.
“It’s not up to the judge or the state to decide if information is true or false – if you go that way, you are basically losing control of the narrative,” he told CNN.
Instead, he said, it should be up to civil society, in the form of journalists, fact-checkers, non-governmental groups and academics, to monitor and check information – and, crucially, to expose the sources of disinformation and analyze how people spread it via social media.
“As long as you don’t understand what is going on on the platforms and how these information campaigns are being spread, pretty much everything you do is useless,” said Alaphilippe. Meanwhile, he said, the platforms have been reluctant to give researchers access to their data.
Another risk is that authoritarian leaders could seek to use the French law as a model in their own countries in order to stifle free speech, he added. “We should think about how we would feel if the same thing was applied in Africa, North Korea, Turkey,” he said. “We would say it was against freedom of expression, democracy.”
The French Culture Ministry argued the case for the new legislation in a statement posted online Thursday, saying that while disinformation was nothing new, the change in the scale and pace of its dissemination, enabled by digital platforms, made it a threat to democracy.
“Fake news spreads up to six times faster than verified information,” said Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen. “Therefore it does more damage than before.”
The ministry insisted that the law would not impinge on freedom of expression or the protection of journalists’ sources. It also said the legislation would afford greater protections than leaving digital platforms to censor their own content, without explaining their criteria, and that rapid actions would be allowed only during an election period and in a very controlled manner.
Speaking to the media earlier this year, Macron said the planned legislation would largely target social media. If people wanted “to protect liberal democracies, we must have strong legislation,” he said.
Macron was the target of a “massive and coordinated hacking operation” that was intended to undermine him in the final days before the election last year, his campaign said at the time. US officials also pointed to Russian interference. Russia denied any involvement.
Soon after the election, Macron raised the issue in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in France, accusing two Russian state-financed media outlets – RT and Sputnik – of spreading “lies” during his presidential run against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne reported from Paris and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. Sam Bradpiece and Frank Andrews contributed to this report, as did CNN’s Sebastian Shukla.