After seeing his nation captivated by a series of execution-style murders by an Islamic militant that ended in a sensational, Hollywood-esque standoff, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is ready to crack down on “terrorists” with new laws that can put people in jail for merely visiting a website. He equates looking at extremist websites with viewing child pornography and argues that people that show a pattern of repeat visits to such websites should be prosecuted and jailed if convicted. Members of the media and law analysts are crying foul, saying that this is an attempt to end free speech and expression in France.
Currently, French laws can put a person in jail for up to two years for repeat visits to child pornography websites. What exactly the penalty would be for visiting extremist websites has not been revealed, but Sarkozy compared the two frequently during a campaign rally in Strasbourg.
The frightening thing is how vague the law is. Granted, it only targets repeat visitors, so just innocently clicking on a site by accident won’t land you in jail. However, the idea behind the law leaves the government with the open-ended task of what it defines as an “extremist” website. This opens the door for all sorts of possible abuses. Then, there is the simple fact that people are being put in prison when they didn’t actually do anything. Yes, they might be visiting the website, but whose to say it is not for research or just curiosity. After all, we are quite sure that government agents in France routinely visit these sites, scouring them for information. But now, an average citizen doing the same would be risking jail time. It’s a classic case of a law that starts out with seemingly good intentions, but could end up becoming a major abuse of rights, especially in a country that prides itself on being very human rights friendly.
Sarkozy is probably taking this hard line because he wants to look tough on this stuff after the embarrassing incident that left the world questioning why it took French authorities so long to track down a fanatic Islamic militant on a killing spree. With an election just a month around the corner, he’s trying to show that he’s up to the challenge of dealing with this stuff. The question is will the French people feel safer because of such rhetoric, or will they feel that their freedoms are being threatened?