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Retrospective: a year of advocacy at Wikimedia France

Wikimedia France looks back on 2021, a year of advocacy campaigns at national and European level. Bringing the voice of community-governed platforms such as Wikipedia – besides the commercial ones – is not always easy. And while legislators and policy makers receive our arguments and concerns generally positively, there is still a long way to go before our messages and initiatives claim to be embedded in the texts that shape and frame the digital of tomorrow.

Several bills have, this past year, impacted Wikimedia projects and particularly the collaborative online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Without going into a Prévert-style inventory, Wikimedia France wants to come back to some of its battles that it has carried out relentlessly, in order to defend a vision of a free and open Internet, protecting the rights and freedoms of users.

The Republican Principles bill or “the French DSA”

The bill reinforcing respect for republican principles, originally called “law project against separatism”, was not intended to regulate digital platforms. Indeed, the main objective of this text was to “fight against radical Islam and separatism”. But policy experts ended up qualifying it as a “catch-all”, insofar as a lot of subject matter had been inserted into it, including digital issues.

The chapter of the law dedicated to the digital issues was a pre-transposition of the Digital Services Act (DSA) even though European discussions were already underway. The French government, a few months before during the Avia law, had called on national governments not to regulate upstream on their side, in order to “avoid patchwork of national laws on the issue”. Ironic, right?

Wikimedia France has, with the help of MPs and senators, defended the position of free knowledge access projects. The law was supposed, in principle, to regulate “social networks”, the platforms representing “a systemic danger for the nation”, these making their turnover based on the dissemination of hateful or illegal content. It ended up regulating Wikipedia, a nonprofit collaborative online encyclopedia, by no means intended to allow indiscriminate free speech, with relatively low virality and a very different and community governance model. 

Why is Wikipedia regulated more than the others? For the simple reason that the legislators limit their approach, once again, to reasoning in terms of unique visitors per month without adding any qualitative criteria to their reflection such as the virality of the content on the platform, for example, or its economic model.

Member of the Assembly Paula Forteza tabled amendments in the National Assembly aimed at excluding projects such as Wikipedia from the scope of the legislation. The rapporteur for the proposal in the Senate did the same. Unfortunately,  these favourable amendments were rejected. 

The Republican Principles Bill  was passed on August 24, 2021. A public consultation on the decree implementing Article 42, in which Wikimedia France took part, took place in September in order to help determine certain details for the application of the law.  On October 12, France notified this article to the European Commission, which had until January 12, 2022 to rule. In the absence of opposition from the Commission or one of the Member States, the text enters into force on French soil after the official decree is published. WMFR has already started discussions with the CSA which will have to be taken over by the Wikimedia Foundation, the legal entity liable for all the projects, in order to discuss  compliance with the law. 

The bill on the prevention of acts of terrorism and intelligence or “Intelligence Law”

The bill relating to the prevention of acts of terrorism and to education carried out by Gérald Darmanin and presented to the French Parliament on April 28, 2021 is part of a movement of generalized mass surveillance of the Internet, undermining fundamental rights of online users.

Without having initiated an advocacy campaign on this text, Wikimedia France has taken, for the first time, a position on this topic.

This law confirms, on the one hand, a series of security measures inherited from the state of emergency of 2015 and the law of 2017 on internal security and the fight against terrorism, and, on the other hand, perpetuates and extends certain uses such as “black boxes”, responsible for detecting terrorist threats using user connection data. All these provisions run counter to the vision of the Internet that is free and respectful of fundamental rights of association.

The association sent its observations, in particular on the question concerning the retention of encrypted data. Wikimedia France called for  proper safeguards necessary to protect Internet users and, above all, essential to determine which platforms fall under the scope of the provision. Indeed, according to article 7, the data should only be kept to the extent of the retention already effectuated by the platform. Wikipedia will be exempted from the obligation to store user data.

Online disinformation

Since the end of 2018, Wikipedia has been subject to new French regulations: the law against the manipulation of information. The law does not target Internet users who disseminate false information, but platform operators with more than 5 million unique visitors per month or receiving min.100 euros excluding tax per advertising campaign.

The law creates a duty of cooperation for platforms which must implement measures to combat the dissemination of false information likely to disturb public order. They must set up an easily accessible and visible device allowing Internet users to report false information. Platform operators must also implement additional measures which may relate in particular to:

  1. The transparency of their algorithms;
  2. The promotion of content from companies and press agencies and audiovisual communication services;
  3. The fight against accounts massively spreading false information;
  4. The information of users on the identity of the natural person or the company name, the registered office and the corporate purpose of legal persons paying them remuneration in return for the promotion of information content relating to a debate of ‘general interest ;
  5. Information for users on the nature, origin and methods of distribution of content;
  6. Media and information literacy.

The platforms must also designate a legal representative in France who will act as a contact person. Wikipedia is the only platform not to have a representative, since this person needs to be a WMF employee based in France.

In practice, this does not change anything. Wikimedia Foundation must complete once a year a questionnaire in French at the request of Autorité de régulation de la communication audiovisuelle et numérique (ARCOM), the audiovisual authority now in charge of regulating Internet platforms.

It may also happen that Wikimedia France intervenes at the request of ARCOM. We then intervene as a Wikipedia expert (example of subjects: covid, presidential election). We do the same at the request other French institutions working on subjects of concern regulated by the law, such as foreign interference, hateful content or terrorist content.