War of words erupts over how billionaire-owned telecommunications giant handled child pornography alerts

In 2005, long before being France’s most famous tech billionaire, Xavier Niel launched dl.free.fr to allow Internet users to send large files online, a solution to the problem of attachment size constraints. emails at the time. The hosting service was just one of the many ways in which Free, an emerging home Internet provider, won over the internet users of the day, the new generation of Napster internet users in France.

Some 16 years later, in mid-June 2021, the hosting service had been adopted by another group of internet users. In an online chat room, hidden on the dark web, those responsible for uploading thousands of files of alleged child sexual images discussed changes to Free’s hosting service, which they were using to share content. illegal pornographic material.

“When you recover,” one user said of posted “links” to downloadable material online, “please select another host. dl.free.fr made a great purge a few days ago. Almost everything that is published on this site at dl.free.fr has disappeared.

The conversation, captured by screenshots seen by Forbes, was released on June 14, just days after a report from the Canadian Center for Child Protection explained Free’s role in distribution, through its large file hosting and mailing service dl.free .fr, of some 1.1 million sexual violence images and videos of abused children discovered between 2018 and June 2021.

Members of the Dark Web chat room had run into a set of changes quietly implemented by Free without any fanfare. The specific issue of child sexual assault material (CSAM) was not acknowledged by Free, but a spokesperson said Forbes a few days later that “technical developments for dl.free” were made “independently of the subject in question” and are “intended to evolve [dl.free] with different interface and functionality. On the dark web, users agreed: Free had made it “impossible to download from dl.free.fr” unless you were using a Free.fr IP. The service was now useless for pedophiles, most of whom are unlikely to be Free home Internet customers, while those who are would risk exposure to law enforcement by posting their IP addresses.

The fact that Free was able to turn off the service so quickly and easily despite thousands of warnings – in the form of alerts – from the Canadian Center for Child Protection and concerned watchdogs around the world, has now sparked a nasty quarrel between the Free and the Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO).

Anger

Free says Forbes that the Canadian NGO’s process of sending “individual emails” to Free alerting the company to each discovery of child sexual assault material “makes the process very cumbersome and considerably lengthens the time frame” to remove equipment. Free said he worked regularly with another French nonprofit, Point de Contact, “and was very responsive in dealing with any alerts.” Point de Contact has not confirmed the number of withdrawal alerts concerning Free since 2018, indicating only “To date, 100% of [CSAM] to French hosts is deleted. The Canadian NGO remains unimpressed, saying that “[Point de Contact] does not perform on the same scale as us ”, so it is“ not surprising that their volume of deletion notifications is more manageable for Free ”.

A spokesperson for Free responded: “Our Group takes child protection issues very seriously and has worked closely with the French authorities for many years to identify and remove any illegal content that may pass through. our services.

The Canadian NGO pushed back, saying Free’s slow response to alerts is due to carelessness, not volume: “This debate misses the most important issue at hand,” says Lloyd Richardson, CTO for the Canadian Center for Child Protection, “Free knew that its file hosting service had been operated for many years by users eager to share images of child sexual abuse, but no did not take sufficient proactive steps to prevent or resolve the persistent issue … it only took 48 hours after our report was publicly released for the company to permanently resolve the issue by preventing all users from being logged in. non-free IP addresses to use its file hosting service.

“This proactive step could have been taken at any time over the past few years, but it was not,” adds Richardson. “As a result, images of abused children continued to circulate online.” Richardson, who claims to work with around 700 Internet service providers, describes Free as an outlier in its “insensitive or very slow” response to child sexual image alerts.

According to data provided by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a UK-based charity watchdog group established in 1996 to remove and eradicate child sexual assault (CSAM) material, France is the third worst offender in the world for hosting child sexual assault material, responsible for 4% of material found by IWF traced CSAM images around the world to identify the physical server who hosted the content in the 2020 calendar year. In France, the IWF said Forbes that he traced 2,255 cases of child sexual abuse to Free last year, which represented 33% of the total content hosted in French.

Police and bait

One of Free’s most bewildering claims since the report was published is that French law enforcement authorities have asked Free to leave content online in order to “help them conduct their investigations.”

Two sources with knowledge of how child sexual abuse images are reported say it is an occasional practice by law enforcement in Europe, but that (based on their experience in the UK Uni) Less than “one in a thousand” CSAM image alerts are in police custody.

John Carr, one of Europe’s leading experts on child safety online, has another objection. “You can’t allow children to be bait for criminals,” Carr says. “The idea that you would continue to allow the circulation of images of raped children just to aid you in your investigation is shameful and should not be allowed. “

A French police representative did not respond to a request for comment on CSAM investigations.

Xavier Niel’s journey

Former hacker, Xavier Niel is at the origin of the European telecommunications giant Iliad Group and majority shareholder of The world, the publication of choice among the chatty class of France. Niel — who Forbes estimated at $ 7.3 billion – counts French President Emmanuel Macron among his key contacts in politics and the richest person in Europe, Bernard Arnault, as his stepfather (Niel’s partner is Arnault’s daughter , Delphine Arnault, vice-president of Louis Vuitton). Niel is revered as a captain of industry, and the only entrepreneur French observers support alongside creative technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk as the father figure of the next generation of young French disruptors. .

Free, which started in 1999 as an Internet service provider, is celebrated by stock analysts at its largest telecommunications group Iliad SA, as one of France’s most dynamic companies, a challenger to its standards. superpowers of luxury fashion and its traditions of dynastic wealth. . Now active in the mobile phone sector, with a presence in Italy, Poland and Ireland, Free is the second most popular home internet provider in France, in part because it has attacked the market with fixed prices. down to about 20 euros per month.

But pricing wasn’t the only area Free thrived on. Emmanuel Paquette, author of a 2016 biography of Niel, describes Free as a company founded on the first “libertarian” Internet principles of its founder, describing Neil as a child coder, a hacker most famous for his popular and perfectly legal sex with the Pink Minitel. chat sites and one of the first Internet users.

According to Paquette, this background has colored the activity of Free and its products, including the famous Freebox, a home Internet and TV box capable of playing the types of files downloaded from torrent sites. Even today, users of Freebox – a fanclub of so-called Freenautes – are discussing online how to use VPN software to hide torrent downloads on their Freebox. In 2007, the French government issued a warning to Free regarding its support for pirated content. (Free offered no reaction or response at the time.) “Xavier Niel is not only a geek, but also a libertarian,” says Paquette. “That’s why he called the company Free. He thinks you have to be free in terms of the price, but also in terms of what you want to do.

But those charged with protecting children online are no strangers to the collision of online freedom and the responsibilities expected of a major Internet provider. John Carr, an expert in online child safety, has no time for this binary argument, for internet sovereignty on the one hand, and against online intervention and regulation on the other. “When you refuse to act, what you are really doing is providing active assistance to criminals and child molesters, explains Carr:” John Stuart Mill’s theory of liberalism – it’s okay to do what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. . Well in this case, there is no doubt, [Free’s] inaction harms others. It harms children.


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