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Punishing Curiosity

Nicolas Sarkozy and Criminal Visitations

by BINOY KAMPMARK

Collaring readers for ‘visiting’ internet sets?  Jailing them for perusing matter accessible through the all pervasive world wide web, where curiosity abounds and internet sites are stumbled across and sampled like novelty gift items?  This is the latest desperate law and order thrust of the struggling French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  With a month to go to the French elections, a good bit of demagoguery is being resorted to.

The lethal handiwork of 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, the Algerian man accused of  the deaths of three French paratroopers, three Jewish school children and a rabbi – has propelled the President into a rather extremist, not to mention suspicious, frame of mind. ‘Anyone who regularly consults internet sites which promote terror or hatred or violence will be sentenced to prison.’ For Sarkozy, the internet must be a dark enclave of consultation and plotting, a breeding ground of permanent subversion.  When a person searches out particularly sites, suspicion should arise.  Reading the anarchist cook books list of deadly recipes is bound to turn the visitor into a mad bomb throwing deviant.  ‘Don’t tell me it’s not possible.  What is possible for paedophiles should be possible for trainee terrorists and their supporters, too.’

One glaring problem in this line taken by Sarkozy lies in the field of policy itself.  The law becomes the famously touted ass largely through application and definition.  A policy can produce invidious outcomes because of unclear meanings or nebulous terms.  Defining which sites are the arbiters of ‘extremist’ matter is the first priority of authorities.   (Read: any group or subject they don’t like.)  As it is also their deemed prerogative, a good deal of arbitrariness can be thrown in as to what is dangerous and what isn’t; what corrupts and what purifies.  One person’s extremist disposition is another’s mild mannered teddy bear.  After all, the Muppet show has been deemed by such wise men as Fox’s Eric Bolling to be a communist enterprise, while the insipid, child oriented Happy Feet 2 has been dubbed ‘Kiddie Karl Marx’ (Guardian, Dec 6, 2011). Such idiocy is charming, until it turns into the dull, half-witted language of legislation.

Presumably, a regular visitor to opera sites falls foul of the Sarkozy triad – there is very little in that genre that lacks hatred, violence of terror.  High society types awaiting time in the nick because they decided to go through booking online tickets for Tosca.  The cupboard of cultural artefacts would be somewhat threadbare without those not so secret herbs and spices.  The same goes for publications, political promotions and policies.

The focus on layering the internet with a surveillance system in recent years has become more intense.  It has become the medium for recruitment, an easy means of access to nab followers for every single ideology or inclination in current circulation.  A UK parliamentary report by the Home Affairs Committee (Jan 31, 2012) examining online radicalisation described the effects of what ‘Sheikh Google’ might do in converting and recruiting young men and women.  That committee, however, shied away from a heavy-handed approach to those who did dabble on the search engine.

The extremist nonsense Sarkozy is peddling demonstrates a false focus, though the rationale is already part of French law, given the punitive regime of anti-paedophilia rules that involve heavy penalties for regular visitors to prohibited web sites.  The site is less relevant than the visitor.  Curiosity will be criminalised.  A click renders you liable; several clicks, certified.  Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders is rightly asking the question whether Sarkozy intends installing ‘a global internet surveillance system in France’ (Morning Star Online, Mar 23). In what must have been the understatement of the week, she also observed that, ‘Trying to criminalise a visit – a simple visit – to a Web site, that’s something that seems disproportionate.’

Perhaps more free speech, rather than less, would be a better solution, enabling members to counteract the agents of terrorism with more conviction. For Sarkozy, the heavy stick of law enforcement is proving far more attractive.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com.