According to leaked documents France’s Ministry of Interior is considering two new proposals: a ban on free and shared Wi-Fi connections during a state of emergency, and measures to block Tor being used inside France.
The documents were seen by the French newspaper Le Monde. According to the paper, new bills could be presented to parliament as soon as January 2016. These proposals are presumably in response to the attacks in Paris last month where 130 people were murdered.
The first proposal, according to Le Monde, would forbid free and shared Wi-Fi during a state of emergency. The new measure is justified by way of a police opinion, saying that it’s tough to track people who use public hotspots.
The second proposal is a little more gnarly: the Ministry of Interior is looking at blocking and/or forbidding the use of Tor completely. Blocking people from using Tor within France is technologically quite complex, but the French government could definitely make it difficult for the average user to find and connect to the Tor network. If the French government needs some help in getting their blockade set up, they could always talk to the only other country in the world known to successfully block Tor: China, with its Great Firewall.
Forbidding the use of Tor through legislative means is another option: France could simply make it illegal for people to access Tor. The difficulty there, though, is in the policing of that new law: the country’s ISPs would have to snoop on its users to find out who is using Tor, and then report back to the police. In the UK, where the new Snooper’s Charter may require ISPs to log the last 12 months of user activity, a lot of resistance is being met.
The main problem with such a ban on Tor is that it wouldn’t achieve a whole lot. Would-be terrorists could still access Tor from outside the country, and if they manage to access Tor from within France I doubt they’re concerned about being arrested for illegal use of the network. There is evidence to suggest that the recent Paris attacks were planned via unencrypted channels, too: the Bataclan “go” message was sent in the clear via SMS.
On the other hand, criminalising and/or blocking Tor might affect many other legitimate users of the network, such as whistleblowers, journalists, and anyone else who wants to surf the Web privately.
The proposal to block Wi-Fi hotspots during a state of emergency is slightly more feasible, and you can see where the French government is coming from—but again, it would be technologically very difficult to implement, and the collateral damage would be huge. Millions of people would have to go without public Wi-Fi access, potentially for weeks at a time.
On November 20, a week after the attacks in Paris, France introduced new legislation that extended the current state of emergency to three months. At the same time, new laws were also introduced to make it easier for the Minister of the Interior to block any terrorism-related website, and to dramatically increase police powers for searching seized devices. The French prime minister suggested that they may soon make it illegal to merely visit a terrorism-related website, too.
Come January 2016 we’ll see if the French government actually goes ahead with these new Tor and Wi-Fi blocking measures. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail: France is one of the most powerful and influential Western democracies, but it’s also rapidly becoming one of the most illiberal. If France rolls out its own Great Firewall, it would then be whole lot easier for the UK, Germany, and other neighbouring countries to do the same thing.