Web browsers such as Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Firefox might soon be required to take such action should a proposal from the French government be accepted. This comes as part of the so-called SREN Bill that is currently under consideration in the French regulatory system. The bill's Article 6 outlines the government's intent to compel web browsers to incorporate tools that would act as mandatory content blockers for a government-approved list.
Mozilla, the parent company of Firefox, expressed its concerns regarding this move in a recent blog post. The company stated, “In a well-intentioned yet dangerous move to fight online fraud, France is on the verge of forcing browsers to create a dystopian technical capability.” They further elaborated that while the intention might seem similar to existing tools like Microsoft's Smart Screen, which blocks sites known for phishing and malware, the proposed mechanisms by the French government would result in a permanent block on any website they deem appropriate.
Smart Screen on Microsoft Edge is a tool that was once built into Microsoft Outlook to weed out spam emails. Microsoft removed the feature from Outlook back in 2016. The solution blocks content that is a security risk or poses some other threat.
The primary distinction between the current industry practices and the French proposal is the nature of the block. Existing systems warn users about potential risks but allow them to access the websites if they choose to accept the risks. In contrast, the French proposal emphasizes outright blocking without any provision for privacy-preserving implementations or mechanisms to prevent misuse. Such a move would be unprecedented, as even the most restrictive governments currently block websites at the network level, typically through ISPs.
What are the Implications on a Global Level?
Implementing browser-level website blocking capabilities could set a concerning global precedent. While the current intent might be to combat malware and phishing in France, it could pave the way for other governments to leverage this technical capability for various purposes, potentially infringing on freedom of expression.
Mozilla suggests that instead of mandating browser-based blocking, the legislation should enhance existing mechanisms already utilized by browsers, such as Safe Browsing and Smart Screen. They recommend establishing clear timelines for major phishing protection systems to handle legitimate website inclusion requests from authorized government agencies. These requests should be based on public criteria limited to phishing/scam websites, subject to independent expert review, and contain judicial appellate mechanisms for rejected requests.
While the French government's proposal aims to combat online fraud, its potential implications for the open internet and global freedom of expression remain a significant concern. Stakeholders, including Mozilla, continue to engage in discussions, hoping for an outcome that upholds the principles of the open internet.