French outlaw online violence vids by citizens

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PARIS -- French lawmakers are cracking down on Internet violence, making it illegal for anyone other than professional journalists to film a violent act or to post such videos online.

The law, proposed by Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, is part of the "loi de la delinquance" (criminality law) passed here over the weekend, which encompasses a broad range of public order crimes.

Offenders and the Web sites that post the material could suffer up to "five years of imprisonment and a €75,000 ($98,600) fine," according to the French Constitutional Council's penal code.

The French authorities have outlawed what they call "happy slapping," an increasingly prevalent practice in which a violent assault is filmed by an accomplice for the amusement of the attacker's friends. French online civil liberties group Odebi has adamantly opposed the new law in defense of Web users.

The group posted a statement on its site claiming that the law "is an extremely serious violation of the liberty of expression and information as well as to citizen journalism on the Internet" and accuses the government of using the clause to establish a complete judicial system controlling the publication of online information.

This act against "video-lynching" gives bloggers and Web site operators a potentially more harsh punishment than the offenders committing the brutal acts themselves. A spokesman for open-source portal Dailymotion refused to comment on the law, but the user-generated video Web site and its international peer YouTube will be among those sites at risk.

However, with this in mind, the French government has proposed a certification system for Web sites, blogs, mobile phone operators and Internet service providers if these groups agree to abide by a series of rules. Paris-based international advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, however, is worried that such control will result in excessive self-censorship and infringements upon the freedom of the press.

"This law introduces a dangerous distinction between professional journalists, authorized to broadcast violent images, and simple citizens who risk prison for the same facts," the group said in a statement Wednesday. It added that these "citizen journalists" have exposed police brutality, uncovered scandals and saved lives all over the world.

The group said that it finds it "shocking that this type of activity, which constitutes an important safeguard against potential power shifts, would be criminalized in a democratic country."

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