France’s Digital Economy minister, Fleur Pellerin, had to personally persuade one of the nation’s top Internet service providers to stop blocking online advertisements, arguing that “no actor can jeopardize the digital ecosystem in a unilateral way.” Free, which provides Internet to an estimated 5.2 million French users, proposed default ad-blocking on some advertisements. Free has been on an anti-Google tear, supposedly in response to the company’s refusal to share advertising revenue with content creators and support national broadband infrastructure projects.
Users can voluntarily install ad-blocking software, such as Adblock Plus, but having it as the default setting could dramatically increase the use of this controversial feature and threaten the very existence of the ad-supported online economy. The minister appears to have the backing of at least one publisher, Spiil, which said that no provider “has the right to decide in place of its citizens what they access or not on the Internet,” according to The New York Times.
As I’ve explained before, France’s long-held egalitarian legal culture of redistributing wealth and protecting worker rights clashes with the Internet economy’s belief in an unregulated marketplace of ideas. Free’s aggressive policy of having default ad-blocking is just the latest in a string of regulation-heavy moves. Last fall, France proposed a law that would require Google to pay a fee for using snippets of web pages in search results, which Google said “would would threaten its very existence.”
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy explained France’s philosophy that “full transparency…sooner or later runs into the very principle of individual freedom.” In this case, Sarkozy was talking about privacy, but the principle holds with content aggregators, such as Google, that rely on a radically open world to collect and organize information without remunerating every single user.
Ultimately, Google stands for an approach that believes greater access to information benefits society as a whole, while French politicians worry that it will only enrich web giants at the cost of weaker actors. The battle continues and, today, France seemed willing to step back from the egalitarian ledge and stand with Google.