A man in France was sentenced to two years in prison this week for repeatedly visiting pro-ISIS websites, even though there is no indication that he planned to stage a terrorist attack. The 32-year-old, whose name has not been released, was convicted by a court in the department of Ardèche on Tuesday under a new law that has drawn scorn from civil liberties groups.
According to French media, police discovered the man’s browsing history after conducting a raid on his house. During the investigation, they found pro-ISIS images and execution videos on his phone, personal computer, and a USB stick. An ISIS flag was on the wallpaper of his computer desktop, and his computer’s password was “13novembrehaha,” a reference to the night gunmen killed 130 people in attacks across Paris. The man had been regularly consulting jihadist websites for two years, police said.
In court, the man argued that he visited the sites out of curiosity. “I wanted to tell the difference between real Islam and the false Islam, now I understand," he said, according to FranceBleu. But the man reportedly admitted to not reading other news sites or international press, and family members told the court that his behavior had recently changed. He became irritated when discussing religion, they said, and began sporting a long beard with harem pants. A representative from the Ardèche court confirmed to The Verge that there was no indication that the man had any plans to launch an attack. In addition to the two-year prison sentence, he will have to pay a €30,000 fine.
This week’s conviction is the latest handed down under a controversial law that criminalizes the “habitual” consultation of websites that promote terrorism. A man in Marseille was convicted under the law in September, as was a 31-year-old man in August. The law, which went into effect in June, makes exceptions for those who visit the sites “in good faith” — for research, to inform the public, or for judicial purposes — but critics say it goes too far.
Patrick Baudouin, honorary president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), described this week’s conviction as “excessive,” saying it “perfectly illustrates” how judicial standards in France have been relaxed amid heightened security concerns. “The consultation of a site does not define a person as a terrorist,” Baudouin said in an email.
The Constitutional Council, France’s highest court, will determine the constitutionality of the website law within the next three months, Reuters reported this week. As of mid-October, 13 cases had been brought under the law, according to Le Parisien, a French newspaper.
The man convicted Tuesday was not previously known to security agencies and had committed only petty crimes in the past, according to FranceBleu. Police reportedly came across his name while conducting surveillance on another person in the region, and received authorization from the Ardèche prefecture to raid his home. Security forces are allowed to conduct warrantless raids and surveillance under France’s state of emergency laws, which went into effect after last year’s terrorist attacks and have drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups. The Ardèche prefecture did not respond to a request for comment.
The French government has gradually tightened its control over the internet in a bid to curb online radicalization. A law passed following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks allows the government to block websites that promote terrorism without a court order, and intelligence agencies were granted broad surveillance powers under a law that critics compared to a “French Patriot Act.” The government has also sought to proactively counter ISIS propaganda with its own messaging. This month, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced an online campaign, known as #toujourslechoix (“always the choice”), that aims to deter young people from joining jihadist movements.
Other European countries may soon implement similar censorship regimes, as well. The European Parliament is expected to ratify a new counterterrorism directive next month that, among other things, would allow member states to “block access to web pages publicly inciting others to commit terrorist offenses.” Rights groups say the current proposal is vaguely worded, making it ripe for abuse.
“When definitions are vague, it means that implementation becomes arbitrary,” says Joe McNamee, executive director of European Digital Rights (EDRi), a Brussels-based advocacy group. “And arbitrariness is the opposite of law.”