Will the presidential majority restrict the use of VPNs? In a few days, MPs will consider the bill aimed at securing and regulating the digital space. Adopted by the Senate last July, the latter aims in particular to fight against “the exposure of minors to pornographic content” on the internet, by creating new obligations aimed at “better protecting our children”.
The examination of the text, expected in committee at the National Assembly from Tuesday September 19 to Friday September 22, promises to be busy, with more than 820 amendments having been tabled by elected officials from the Bourbon Palace. Among these, one of them sparked controversy this Saturday, by proposing to further regulate the use of VPNs on social networks. To the point of leading its author to withdraw it.
These devices, called “virtual private networks”, allow their users to browse the internet anonymously, discreetly and securely. They are completely legal in France, provided you do not use them “for illicit purposes”, and therefore aim to “secure your access to the internet when accessing remote services”.
One of the amendments tabled by the majority deputies is concerned about a “hole in the racket”, considering that VPNs allow dishonest individuals to “extract [the] French protective legislative framework”, by locating themselves in a foreign country. He therefore proposes to force software application stores to ensure that VPNs “do not allow access to an internet network not subject to French or European legislation and regulations”.
Other proposals go further to prevent VPNs from being misused, particularly by minors to browse pornographic sites in complete peace of mind. Tabled by Modem elected officials, an amendment asks the government to produce a report formulating “recommendations to combat this illicit use of virtual private networks”.
Another from the same political group suggests “requiring VPN providers, which allow a change of IP – email address, editor’s note – to refuse subscription to their services to people under 18 years of age except in the event of “parental consent given by one of the holders of parental authority”, in order to avoid any circumvention by young people.
Particularly controversial, an amendment carried by Renaissance elected officials proposed “to prohibit any user of a social network from publishing, commenting or interacting using a virtual private network”. If they admitted the right to anonymity as a general rule, the authors recalled that this could be lost “in the event of legal requisitions”. However, a virtual private network “blurs the possibility of identification” of the user, preventing the identification of an Internet user guilty of reprehensible behavior on social networks, they regretted.
“Although social networks constitute a real tool in the service of freedom of expression, they can in no case be a lawless zone where freedom of expression is without limits,” considered the deputies. In order to improve the identification of the individuals concerned, the amendment therefore proposed to force platforms to “put in place detection mechanisms to identify connections from a virtual private network used by users of their platform”. The people in question would then no longer have the possibility of “publishing, commenting or interacting on the platform”. In other words, without being prohibited, the use of a VPN on a social network would have limited the Internet user's room for maneuver.
This proposal aroused concern among users. “The use of VPN is a method of security, particularly for businesses. Limiting them is a security breach. This amendment is therefore nonsense at a time of increasing cybersecurity issues,” commented the NGO Internet Society France. Many Internet users have also drawn a parallel between France and other authoritarian regimes banning these devices, worrying about a development that, in their eyes, is liberticidal.
A criticism even came from the presidential majority: “The ban on VPNs, if it were proposed, would not strengthen the security of internet users, but on the contrary a considerable weakening of their experience on the web,” said judged the deputy (Renaissance) Éric Bothorel.
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On Sunday, following the controversy, the MP behind this amendment, Mounir Belhamiti, finally chose to withdraw his proposal to avoid “disturbing a debate which requires serenity”. By submitting this text, “I would like the ineffectiveness of our means of tracking down people who commit crimes online by deliberately using systems that make their identification more difficult for the judicial authorities to be questioned”, justifies MP Renaissance. It was only an appeal amendment, designed to generate a discussion, not to be voted on as is, he adds.
Denouncing "useless red rags" waved by some, he nevertheless intends to continue his "role of questioning the government on the means used to pursue professional trolls [...] who use technological concealment solutions to escape the law".