Blown To Bits

How We Could Know Less #1

Friday, March 5th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

I have been thinking for awhile about the myriad ways in which we could wind up knowing less, not more, as a result of the digital explosion. So this will be the first in a series. Feel free to post or email others you’d like to suggest.

The editor of the European Journal of International Law is going to stand trial in criminal court in France, because a book review on a web site associated with the journal displeased the author of the book. The book’s author demanded that the review be taken down; the editor wrote a thoughtful response, inviting the reviewer to alter his review if he wished, and inviting the author to post a comment of her own if she wished. (These are book-review innovations that could not have happened in the pre-Internet world.) The reviewer chose not to alter his review, and instead of posting a response, the author sued the editor, personally, for libel. Apparently, under French law, this ball, once rolling, can end only in the courthouse. The editor, not even a Frenchman I think, has to show in Paris in June to defend himself.

This is madness. Without pretending to any expertise about French law, it seems that the European prioritization of personal dignity over free speech as a human right here has crazy, and more importantly censorious, consequences. Who will dare to write a critical book review on a blog if it means the expense and risk of defending oneself in France?

The editor’s telling of the tale is here. The review itself is here.

Hard to know where this case could end. Even if the editor spends a lot of money, gets a good lawyer, goes to France, and wins his case, who, in the future, will dare either write or publish a critical review of anything by a French author? What sort of system of liberté is this? Is this really what the French fought their revolution to protect?

The editor invites help of two kinds. First, and this applies particularly to scholars who are themselves editors,

You may send an indication of indignation/support by email attachment to the following email address Kindly write, if possible, on a letterhead indicating your affiliation and attach such letters to the email. Such letters may be printed and presented eventually to the Court.

The editor asks that letters not be sent to the book author. And second, the editor asks,

it will be helpful if you can send [to the same address] scanned or digital copies of book reviews (make sure to include a precise bibliographical reference) which are as critical or more so than the book review [linked above].

If you have links to reviews that meet that condition, let me know and I’d be glad to pass them along.

10 Responses to “How We Could Know Less #1”

  1. François Cassin Says:


    I’m French and I wanted to react to this entry.
    This kind of law is really not what our ancestor fought the revolution for, and a lot of french people are displeased with the way the government has been handling the law regarding the internet. Hadopi and Loppsi laws, which are meant to protect intellectual property and to attack pedopornography are really used to censor freedom on the internet.

    Unfortunately we live in a democracy and there is not much we can do right now…
    I sincerely hope things will change in 2012 but the left is really weak right now so we’re stuck with this government for now…

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    Thanks for weighing in, François. To be sure, we don’t hold every American responsible for every U.S. Government action. But fill me in — is this a new law, or a new way of interpreting an old law? Are you saying that this situation wouldn’t have happened before this government? I thought it was a libel law, not a copyright law or a pornography law, that was causing the problem.

  3. François Cassin Says:

    Harry, you’re right regarding this particular lawsuit, the law existed before Sarkozy took the presidency.

    I am no law expert but I take a particular interest in those regarding freedom of speech on the internet. The ground for the lawsuit here is “calomnie” (calumny/slander).
    However I was referring to Hadopi and Lopsi because they are prime exemples of where our government is heading towards internet laws. Even though it is highly anti-constitutional, there IS pressure put on the judges to make the internet a “safer place”.
    Lopsi 2 has not been adopted by Senate yet, but in its current version, the government would be allowed to ask an internet service provider to remove any offensive content, without having to make a case for it. Of course they say it is only to prevent things like pedopornography, but in this particular instance, this new law could be used to ask the ISP to take down the content if it is hosted in France, or to prevent every user from accessing it without the use of a proxy.

    Sadly, this particular exemple is yet another in a long list of bad precedents.

    A new gambling law, which should take effect before the Soccer World Cup, prevents french poker players from playing online with anyone but other french players.

    It is a scary thought that the internet in France could very well lose its world wide aspect.

    So to stay on topic, you’re right it is an old law, but it was only used to take down insults or threats, not thoughtful content. I sincerely hope the editor of the European Journal of International Law will be acquitted of all charges.

    I can very well see how these new laws could mean knowing less as a result of digital explosion.

    (I hope I made my point clear, as english isn’t my native language I always fear not to be well understood)

  4. Harry Lewis Says:

    Thanks so much. You have actually listed several important examples there, which could be HWCKL #2, 3, and 4. You have no English problems at all!

  5. Joho the Blog » Berkman Buzz Says:

    […] Harry Lewis on the “madness” of criminal libel in France: link […]

  6. Joho the Blog » [2b2k] Harry Lewis on ways the Net is making us stupider Says:

    […] less, rather than more. Apparently, it’s not just Google that’s making us stupid. His first post is about the astounding French criminal libel prosecution in which the editor of a scholarly […]

  7. Richard Says:

    Are we sure that this is an issue associated with French law alone? Do not a number of US States have criminal libel statutes, for instance. Likewise, do not other other legal jurisdictions around the world also have such statutes?

  8. CH Says:

    “These are book-review innovations that could not have happened in the pre-Internet world”

    This is the only point that is related to the so-called “digital explosion”. But the content of the review could have been published elsewhere before the “digital explosion”. So you’re missing the point of you series.

    Of course you can argue against censorship, but this case is not a consequence of any web-immanent mechanisms.

  9. Harry Lewis Says:

    There is actually a broader point — the Web has made it possible for more people to become editors and publishers, and as participation in the production of ideas and opinions has been democratized, the censorship has reached more people, most of them without lawyers or colleagues as this editor has. It would be tragic if the bottom line were to be “just keep quiet and you won’t attract attention from the bullies.”
    – HRL

  10. Joho the Blog » Another open access journal, and when closed access journals go rogue Says:

    […] The editor’s courteous, respectful, generous response is here. (I posted about this when Harry Lewis blogged about it […]