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French Prime Minister Says Internet Rules Need Repair

A recent French court ruling in an intrusion-of-privacy suit that led to the shutdown of a popular Web-host company demonstrates that the laws regulating French Internet use need repair, said French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

"This news is a reminder that rules applying to the Internet still need to be adapted," Jospin said, referring to a Feb. 10 decision that held Altern.org liable for nude photographs of supermodel Estelle Halliday that appeared on one of the 47,000 free Web sites on its server.

"A balance needs to be found between freedom of speech and respect of basic rights, such as the protection of privacy ... with a solution that also applies to providers of technical services," Jospin said.

Equating a Web server with traditional media like newspapers or magazines, the court awarded Halliday FF405,000 (US$67,500) in damages. Her suit only named Altern's 32-year old owner, Valentin Lacambre, although he had pulled the plug on the site, Silversurfer, and offered to identify its author, who had scanned the photos from a French magazine.

Fearing similar awards in other suits pending against him, Lacambre turned off almost all Altern.org sites.

In his speech marking France's Mar. 19-21 Fête de l'Internet, Jospin called the judgement "worrying." The nationwide celebration designed to spur Internet use was marred by widespread protests against the decision, both on- and offline, with consumer associations, newspapers and government ministers criticizing it. Some 1,500 French sites closed temporarily to show solidarity with Lacambre, one of France's Internet pioneers.

"This ruling directly condemns freedom of speech by forcing technical-service providers to decide what is legal and what is not ... and to check all sites on servers," Lacambre said via his site, Défaite de l'Internet, whose name plays on "fête" and means "Defeat of the Internet." The Altern case illustrates how France's legal system often tilts in favor of a right to privacy, to the detriment of free speech.

In a French magazine interview, Halliday said she also sued the magazine that originally published the amateur photographs, taken on a beach when she was 17 and later stolen. "The Internet is marvelous, incredible, but I want to protect my image," she said. "I did what any woman would do in the same situation." Meanwhile the pictures remain online on non-French sites.

Jospin said he had initiated inter-ministerial work to develop fairer laws for Internet communications, and he called for input from professionals and Internet-user associations. The European Union is also considering new laws, but it's unclear whether these would help or hinder Web companies.

That's probably too late for Altern.org. Lacambre, who started out offering Internet services via Minitel in the early 1990s, plans to sell off his equipment to pay Halliday.