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 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 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 Lacambre, who started out offering
Internet services via Minitel in the early 1990s, plans to sell off his
equipment to pay Halliday.

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