In reaction to the recent spate of murders carried out by a Moslem extremist in France, its president, Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled proposed legislation that has stunned both legal experts and journalists.
The proposed law would jail those who visit extremist web sites, and is just one plan in a list of new measures under consideration in the wake of Toulouse terrorist Mohamed Merah’s killing spree that took the lives of three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi.
The opponents of the new measure claim that it can prevent free expression and possibly infringe on an individual’s privacy. Sarkozy, in defense of the measure, said, "Anyone who regularly consults Internet sites which promote terror or hatred or violence will be sentenced to prison," suggesting that it was time to consider people who follow extremist websites as we would someone perusing pedophilia and child pornography websites. "What is possible for pedophiles should be possible for trainee terrorists and their supporters, too."
Journalists and lawyers are concerned at how the suggested measures would be carried out. "Trying to criminalize a visit — a simple visit… seems disproportionate," Lucie Morillon, who heads watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
Morillon questions how the government will monitor the websites and visitors, “What's especially worrying for us is how you are going to know who's looking at what site,” she asked. The worry for civil rights advocates is that an Internet surveillance system will be initiated.
"I don't see how you can assume that a person who connects (to an extremist website) not only shares the ideas that are being expressed there but is ready to act on them," Media lawyer Christophe Bigot said.
Yet, processes similar to this have been in place in many countries, including The United States. The various law enforcement and national security agencies regularly monitor Internet activity via search warrants and national security needs to discover who might be engaging in illegal or terrorist activity.
In June 0f 2003, the United States Department of Homeland Security initiated The National Cyber Security Division (NCSD), to monitor terrorist traffic. Then the Combating Child Exploitation Act, (S. 1738), and the Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators (KIDS) Act of 2008, (S. 431) were signed into law to fight online and in person sexual exploitation of children.
The law established an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program in every state, and helps social networking sites share information on potential threats to children online. What it also did, which goes to the issue monitoring terrorism, is expands the legal definition of possessing child pornography or exploiting children to include accessing by computer visual depictions of child pornography with the intent to view – which means someone is watching you as you watch the Internet.
There are concerns both in the United States and in France, that the methods of monitoring cross lines of privacy, and cloud the distinction between accessing the sites for the purpose of committing a crime or act of terror, or for “academic or research” reasons.
Bigot feels that Sarkozy's proposals may be just campaign rhetoric, as the president is one month from what is expected to be a close election, with a far-right contingent putting up a serious challenge.
Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency 5W Public Relations and a contributor to the Cutting Edge News