French senator calls for creation of digital identity supervisory body

The control body mentioned in the bill would include platform representatives, users, members of parliament and magistrates. A decree would also detail the online platforms that will be affected, based on the number of connections. [asiandelight/Shutterstock]

To facilitate the prosecution of online offenders, a French senator has proposed the creation of an independent supervisory authority that would collect the identity of users when they register with online platforms. EURACTIV France reports.

Conservative Senator Alain Cadec (Les Républicains) presented a bill on Thursday (14 October) that would require users of platforms like Facebook to have their official identity authenticated by an independent administrative authority if they want to register. The aim is to stop the increase in cyberbullying and make it easier to prosecute against potential offenders.

“Faced with such acts of violence, blackmail, mockery and insults, which are often underestimated because they are carried out behind the screen of a keyboard and a screen, it is important to legislate to put in place a tool that will make it possible to identify the perpetrators of these attacks more quickly,” the senator said in his explanatory statement.

The control body mentioned in the bill would include platform representatives, users, members of parliament and magistrates. A decree would also detail the online platforms that will be affected, based on the number of connections.

“The proposed law is undoubtedly salutary. It reminds us, once again, of the deep, legitimate and shared expectation of all Internet users to see an end to cyberbullying,” Philippe Coen, president of Respect Zone, an NGO active in the fight against cyberbullying, told EURACTIV. Coen also warned, however, that this was not the most “effective and desirable” solution.

However, the president of the cyberbullying NGO pointed to instruments of a similar nature that already exist. This includes the Pharos reporting platform, as well as the law on the “respect for the principles of the Republic” passed on 24 August – which anticipates certain provisions of the forthcoming Digital Services Act (DSA) at the EU level – and provides for better cooperation between the authorities and social networks in the fight against online hate.

This new authority would make it possible to increase “the fear of an effective sanction” while preserving “individual freedoms, particularly by maintaining pseudonymity”. The text also provides for the attribution of a non-nominal numerical identifier, kept by the authority which will transmit it to the platforms when finalising the user’s registration.

Senator Cadec, who was contacted by EURACTIV France, said he did not wish to comment on his own proposal at this stage of the legislative process.

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The issue of anonymity, or more precisely pseudonymity, has long been the subject of much debate between rights advocacy groups and public authorities. While the former consider this to be Internet’s founding principle, the latter are more inclined to give it up, at least in part, for better online regulation.

But the issue has already been in the news in the past, online tech blog Next INpact recalled.

Following the Nice attack in 2016, conservative MP Éric Ciotti (Les Républicains) said he wanted to “make it compulsory for social networks to verify the identity of their members”, for example. A few years later, when the bill on fighting separatism was being debated, Ciotti’s colleagues, Valérie Bazin-Malgras and Emmanuelle Antoine, expressed the same will.

The debate does not stop at France’s frontiers. Similar calls, for instance, were made in the UK after English football players were targeted online with racist slurs following the European Championship last summer.

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“To make the fight against anonymity the alpha and omega of the fight against online hate and cyber-violence are to serve up new arguments for censorship on a silver platter to many authoritarian governments who are just waiting for it,” Coen also warned.

Respect Zone, for its part, advocates forcing platforms to put more resources into moderation and to “strengthen training and prevention” of hateful behaviour online. “Giving oneself the means to enforce the law in a place avoids the need for controls at the entrance,” Coen added.

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[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi]

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