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French Copwatch Ruling Continues Trend of Censorship

Cet article en anglais a été publié dans la revue juridique en ligne JURIST.

JURIST Guest Columnist Félix Tréguer, Policy and Legal Analyst at La Quadrature du Net, says that the recent ruling blocking the Copwatch website in France is just another instance of censorship under the Sarkozy government which prevents French citizens from learning of police abuse and engaging in democratic governance…

For the first time in France, cop-watching has made the headlines nationwide. Such publicity is the result of a groundbreaking case involving the Copwatch website designed for posting photos, videos and commentaries denouncing police abuse. In late September, the French Minister of the Interior, Claude Guéant, charged the authors of Copwatch with defaming, insulting and infringing the privacy of police officers. Following a fast-track procedure, a Paris district court ruled in favor of the government, declaring Copwatch illegal for several reasons. Faced with the impossibility of ordering the take down of Copwatch — hosted in the US where cop-watching is legal — the judge issued an injunction requiring the immediate blocking of the website by all major French Internet service providers. The authors remain anonymous and did not appear at their trial.

By blocking Copwatch, the French government makes its already disastrous record on Internet policy even worse. Over the past two years of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, the government has created an Internet disconnection sentence through the infamous HADOPI laws, which are aimed at tackling the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted works online. Sarkozy’s government has also allowed the police to block online content with no judicial oversight, called for the take down of WikiLeaks with no legal basis, passed an executive order forcing hosting platforms to engage in disproportionate data retention practices. It is now seeking broad extra-judicial censorship powers over the Internet on the pretext of protecting public order, national security, public health and consumers.

The Copwatch case is a controversial and complex one. Indeed, most French people consider that the type of material used to denounce police abuse goes too far. Not only does the website include pictures and videos of police interventions, but it also contains full names and screen shots of police officers’ public accounts on social networks. For instance, one of them shows an affiliation with far-right extremist groups on Facebook. In an anonymous interview, one of Copwatch’s editors defended this rather aggressive policy, saying that police officers are public officials who represent the republic, and that their right to privacy has to be balanced with citizens’ rights to good administration. The government disagreed, and so did the judge. The website was eventually convicted of violations of privacy.

The government did not stop there, but also successfully charged Copwatch with defaming and insulting police officers — two criminal offenses under the 1881 Law on the Freedom of the Press. According to the ruling, Copwatch’s editors were not allowed to insult the police force by saying that it is the « pauper’s grave of humanity, » nor could they write that the police force of the city of Calais, in Northern France, « trains to hunt migrants, to humiliate them, [and] to torture them psychologically. » The judge considered such allegations to be defamatory, and therefore illegal. Even citizens who are not journalists are prohibited from expressing opinions and judgments in the form of peremptory statements or slander against the republic.

Far from being an isolated instance, the Copwatch case illustrates a pattern. In the past years, we have also seen a former government minister suing a 49-year-old woman for calling the minister a « liar » in the comment section of a video hosting platform, and former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux — now special advisor to the president — bringing legal action against two cop-watching blogs for defaming and insulting police forces. Since Nicolas Sarkozy took office in 2007, the crime of offense to the president has also gone through a revival, as did the charge of « contempt of cop, » with a sharp increase in the number of cases and convictions. Last year, after a picture of a man wiping himself with a French flag won a photo contest, the government created a €1500 fine for offense to the flag. Clearly, existing law hampers the ability of citizens to speak their minds — however bluntly — about the institutions and power relationships organizing society.

The blocking of Copwatch thus exhibits a crucial fact about French democracy — namely that existing law greatly constrains the empowerment of citizens in their relation to the state. While cop-watching typifies a new era in which people are able to use widely available information and communications technologies to make institutions more transparent and accountable, the policies of both the government and the courts run counter to the enjoyment of these new-found capacities.

In another revealing case chronicled in the French newspaper Libération, a young man was subject to the disproportionate use of force by two police officers who arrested him for insulting them and refusing to comply with their orders, while one of his friends recorded the whole scene of the arrest on video. Anticipating the reaction of the judge, his lawyer chose not to use the video as evidence and gathered a dozen testimonies from elected city officials, social workers and witnesses of the arrest, all in favor of the young man. The court, however, refused to hear these witnesses. Instead, the judge chastised the defendant for asking his friends to record the scene and criticized the very concept of cop-watching during the trial. The young man lost, and was sentenced to pay €300 to the two police officers for moral prejudice and to a suspended sentence of four months in prison.

The legal rejection of cop-watching suggests the inability of citizens to participate in uncovering police abuse. It is very unfortunate, especially at a time of tension between the police and the general population, which are extremely perceptible in underserved urban areas. Sarkozy’s « tough on crime » rhetoric and policies, while patently ineffective, have ended up aggravating distrust towards the police, which is put under strain by an endless race for statistics to satisfy his political agenda. While trying to stigmatize the critics of the government’s law enforcement policy, Guéant never even acknowledged the wrongdoings identified on the website.

Fortunately, the Internet provides the means for resisting censorship. When Guéant announced that he was going after Copwatch in late September, people were quick to lambaste his decision on social networks. In a matter of days, dozens of mirror websites replicating the original website appeared on other domain names. In spite of the blocking of Copwatch by French Internet service providers, its content remains widely available through these mirror websites, and it is now benefiting from the viral marketing campaign inadvertently launched by Guéant.

Hence, though the government may have scored a legal victory, it unintentionally started a debate on the virtues of cop-watching. The crucial question for the future of democracy in France is whether the Copwatch case will drive demands for legislative reforms aimed at fostering free speech and empowering citizens in their relation to the republic, or on the contrary, whether the resilience of Copwatch’s online presence will push the government to seek ever broader powers to censor the Internet. The answer may lie in the outcome of upcoming the presidential and legislative elections, which will be held in spring 2012.

Félix Tréguer is a Policy and Legal Analyst for La Quadrature du Net. This Paris-based advocacy group promotes the free circulation of information and knowledge on the Internet. Tréguer is also a PhD candidate in political science at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, researching the consequences of the Internet for communications law and democracy at large.

Suggested citation: Félix Tréguer, French Copwatch Ruling Continues Trend of Censorship, JURIST – Hotline, Nov. 3, 2011,