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Wikipedia will be harmed by France’s proposed SREN bill: Legislators should avoid unintended consequences

Written by Jan Gerlach, Director of Public Policy at the Wikimedia Foundation; Phil Bradley-Schmieg, Lead Counsel at the Wikimedia Foundation; and, Michele Failla, Senior EU Policy Specialist at Wikimedia Europe

(Wikimédia France, the French national Wikimedia chapter, has also published a blog post on the SREN bill)

The French legislature is currently working on a bill that aims at securing and regulating digital space (widely known by its acronym, SREN). As currently drafted, the bill not only threatens Wikipedia’s community-led model of decentralized collaboration and decision-making, it also contradicts the EU’s data protection rules and its new content moderation law, the Digital Services Act (DSA). For these reasons, the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Europe call on French lawmakers to amend the SREN bill in order to make sure that public interest projects like Wikipedia are protected and can continue to flourish.

SREN is in part an implementation of the new EU DSA, but goes much further, placing numerous new obligations on platform hosts. Several provisions of the bill risk severely undermining the foundational principles of the world’s largest free online encyclopedia, built and curated through the efforts of more than 300,000 volunteer editors worldwide. Wikipedia is a digital public good serving all people and deserves a high level of protection. As recently as October 2023, French Wikipedia received more than 460 million pageviews from France, which speaks to the importance of this freely available source of knowledge in the country.

There are four main aspects of the SREN bill that are problematic. French lawmakers should fix them before adopting the new law.

1. Impossible removal deadlines. While Wikimedia shares the goal and commitment to protecting children, legislators should be mindful of the unintended collateral effects of well-intentioned child safety rules. An obligation to comply with takedown orders in less than 24 hours is close to impossible to implement for a platform that is community-governed, and operated by a comparatively small nonprofit organization with a limited budget. Decentralized mechanisms for decision-making would be harmed by short deadlines, which force platforms to interfere with good faith decisions by volunteers. A solution to this problem could be the introduction of a very tailored carveout for online encyclopedias and other educational resources, similar to the one already introduced in the 2023 “Majorité numérique” law. This would not make their distribution of child sexual abuse material lawful — it is already illegal, almost everywhere in the world. SREN’s obligation for platforms to prevent any user — even adults — from viewing material of an adult nature in case the user is aged under-18, is equally problematic. Such requirements, no matter how well-intentioned, have drastic practical consequences for projects like Wikipedia, as we have previously warned.

2. Unintended consequences of enforcement powers. The SREN gives the French regulator, ARCOM, the power to order hosting service providers to remove content that could infringe upon economic sanctions by the Council of the European Union. Such sanctions were used to block Russian state media in the EU. If such measures go too far, they could pose serious risk to Wikipedia’s ability to document examples of state-driven propaganda or collect information about sanctioned entities. An abuse of this power would harm the French people’s access to verified information about topics of critical importance. A specific carveout for online encyclopedias and other educational content could solve the issue.

3. Forcing platforms to violate data minimization principles. The SREN bill wants to make platforms assist the French state’s implementation of orders to punish citizens by banning them from using online services. For example, platforms would be required to prevent those citizens from creating any new accounts on said platforms. In practice, this could be very problematic for Wikipedia, including for all users who are not the subject of these French banning orders. The Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikimedia projects aim at minimizing the collection of personal data, both to protect readers’ and volunteers’ privacy and their right to access, create, and share knowledge without fear of interference or retaliation. On the contrary, this new provision could oblige the Wikimedia Foundation to collect personal data needed to identify users. However, the Foundation cannot know if someone creating an account is on an official French “ban list” unless it systematically asks every new user to show reliable proof of ID. In this case as well, a specific carveout for online encyclopedias and other educational platforms could solve the issue.

4. Contradicting the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While the legislature intends to adapt the national legal system to the new European rules, the SREN bill does not take this opportunity to align French legislation to European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisprudence regarding data retention: In 2004 the French government introduced an obligation for platforms to retain identifying data about all users posting user-generating content, for minimum periods of time; however, in 2020, the ECJ found that obligation (when applied to websites like Wikipedia) to be illegal, because it contradicts the 2016 EU GDPR. Removing this now-illegal provision from French law books would streamline platforms’ obligations and strengthen people’s privacy and security online.

Finally, it is important to highlight that the SREN bill could potentially undermine the effectiveness of the new DSA. Indeed, the DSA introduces a maximum level of harmonization to achieve a true European digital single market. Achieving such a goal will definitely be much harder, if not almost impossible, if new national rules affecting online content and user moderation are introduced. This in turn will result in a less vibrant and diverse internal market, since operating in the EU will become much harder for not-for-profit entities and small actors who don’t have the resources to implement different national rules. As a consequence, those who will lose the most from this situation will be EU citizens, including the French people.

The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Europe call on French legislators to seize the opportunity to amend the SREN bill in order to ensure public interest projects such as Wikipedia are protected and can continue to thrive online.