France hopes to force Microsoft Edge and others to censor websites at a browser level

 French flag on Microsoft Edge
French flag on Microsoft Edge

Web browsers like Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Firefox may be forced to block websites at a software level if the French government has its way.

In a blog post penned by Firefox's parent company Mozilla, the firm warned on the potential chilling effects the so-called SREN Bill currently travelling through the French regulatory system could have on web browsers, and the free internet at large too.

Article 6 of the bill describes the French government's desire to force web browsers to bake in tools that would function as filters, acting as a mandatory content blocker for a government-backed list. It's not as if these sorts of laws haven't existed previously. Totalitarian-leaning states like Russia and China already have pervasive internet control tools, but even self-described democracies like Australia and the UK have some over-reaching laws revolving around government snooping and censorship on the web. I distinctly remember my UK ISP blocking Pirate Bay with a big red warning label at one point, although the ban seems to have been relatively short-lived (since it's once again available now).

What's different here is the mechanism being sought after by the French government. By operating at a browser level, it would give the government a disturbing amount of power, while putting pressure on web browsers to fund systems that could be exploited by totalitarian states.

"In a well-intentioned yet dangerous move to fight online fraud, France is on the verge of forcing browsers to create a dystopian technical capability. Article 6 (para II and III) of the SREN Bill would force browser providers to create the means to mandatorily block websites present on a government-provided list. Such a move will overturn decades of established content moderation norms and provide a playbook for authoritarian governments that will easily negate the existence of censorship circumvention tools."

Mozilla elaborates that, while on the surface, it might not seem wildly different from tools like Microsoft Smart Screen which automatically blocks sites reported as being hotspots for phishing and malware attacks, the key differentiator is that Smart Screen and other similar tools can be bypassed easily by users if necessary. These mechanisms sought after by the French government would simply be a permanent block on any website or platform they see fit.

Analysis: Dumb governments with dumb ideas

While these kinds of features may be well-intentioned (seriously giving the benefit of the doubt here), having these sorts of systems in place allows future potential governments to exploit them for political gain while remaining within "legal" definitions. Perhaps more crucially, they also never really work in practice. The idea that the French government could somehow prevent the free flow of information this way is asinine, and likely serve only to give browser firms a big headache. The open-source community would have forked versions without government controls prepped in minutes. And then, the potential for legitimate users getting caught out by actual malware would undoubtedly increase, if they had to seek open tools from perhaps less-than-legitimate sources.

The UK is also pushing similar bills through its parliament at the moment. The so-called "Online Safety Bill" would force companies like Microsoft to bake in government-mandated back doors into apps with end-to-end encryption. It would kill apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, and other services that rely on strong encryption methods to keep user data private.  Firms like WhatsApp and Signal have even threatened to exit the UK entirely over the bill. The government often says these bills are about preventing crime, but when governments have a monopoly on violence and incarceration, the definition of crime can shift very quickly. You need only look at the complete and total erosion of free speech in nations like Hong Kong and Russia, where, increasingly, criticism of the government can land you with lengthy prison terms (or worse). Both the UK and French governments have earned themselves a lot of criticism lately ...