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Interview: Ambassador of Digital Affairs David Martinon

Interview: Ambassador of Digital Affairs David Martinon

Published on May 4, 2018
Ambassador Martinon
Photo: Frédéric de la Mure

David Martinon is France’s Ambassador for Cyberdiplomacy and the Digital Economy, a post he was first named to in 2013.

What are your main duties as Ambassador of Digital Affairs?

There has been a diplomat dealing with international negotiations concerning internet governance since the preparation for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) from 2003- 2005. I was appointed as the special representative covering this area in 2013. Then, during the presentation of the French national strategy for digital security in 2015, the Minister of Foreign Affairs decided to designate one person responsible for all areas related to the Internet and cyber-security.

A few months ago, the President of the Republic asked me to engage in a direct dialogue with digital companies who are members of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism on the fight against the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes. Because of this new focus, I was in California recently and have met with a number of people in Washington to discuss these topics.

In terms of the French international strategy for digital affairs and technology, it goes beyond my role since it involves the entire strategy of the French Government, not just the vision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Today, I am in charge of promoting and putting into practice the French international strategy for digital affairs and technology, which does not only represent the vision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but is truly a “whole-of-government” approach to digital issues.

Can you tell us about the contacts you met during your trip to the United States and your impression of the evolution of debates in the U.S. on these questions, compared to Europe?

The meetings that I had focused on the fight against the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes. I met with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other companies like Wordpress. The U.S. government’s evolution on these issues is rather positive, as they realize that politically it is untenable to remain passive in the face of these phenomena of dissemination of terrorist content on the internet. There is still the first amendment constraint that guarantees Americans’ freedom of expression, so that makes the discussion difficult. But, the reality is that the major platforms have changed their terms of service and general conditions of use, to provide the means to effectively fight against online terrorism overall.

What can we ask of France and Europe on this issue? How do we reconcile the balance between security and freedom of expression in France?

To follow the EU’s principle, the “take down, stay down” of all terrorist content. The aim is to ensure the “take down” of the content occurs rapidly, and the “stay down” refers to the guarantee that the content never reappears.

In France, there is a set of laws that addresses products that glorify terrorism. So for us, it is much easier and more straightforward since we have an extremely clear legal basis. Fortunately, even if the subject is not fully resolved, once again, the major platforms are changing their terms of use in this direction. This allows them to remove terrorist content because it is inconsistent with their terms of use.

Beyond self-regulation, do you think there is a need for federal action or a form of legislation passed?

The conversation must open up to the platforms themselves, which we have already discussed with American authorities. We are aware that the American authorities, with the freedom of expression laws dictated within the first amendment, are in a position where they are unable to make significant constraints.

How is France joining its European allies in their goals to combat digital terrorism?

I came to the United States with British and German delegates to talk to American companies and our counterparts in the administration. We are also working closely with the Commission, Europol and other member states within the EU Internet Forum; we all have a common goal on this matter.

Are you participating in technical dialogue on these topics that includes complex algorithm issues? Is the debate also taking place at the technical level, or on broader terms?

It is very difficult to have a technical dialogue, firstly because the digital platforms are much stronger than us. They are the ones who have the technical competence. Then, secondly, they are protected by the American law on the protection of intellectual property which is indeed extremely rigorous and protective of investments.They do not want to reveal their secrets to us and are protected by law. Still, there is a specific area that we will soon have to talk about with these companies, this is the way to fight misinformation campaigns of foreign origin, especially during an election period. That will be our next topic.

Why was [the ability to counter fake news] better in France than in the United States? What happened and what were the factors that made an answer that was generally perceived as better than that of the American response?

The French law on electoral campaigns provides a number of barriers/limitations that have proved extremely useful. For example, every presidential campaign, a National Commission for the Control of the Electoral Campaign for Presidential Election is set up. It is a special body that serves as a campaign watchdog. Its call on asking for responsible behavior once the Macron leaks were released (i.e. a few hours before the mandatory media shutdown on political issues 24 hours before the day of the vote) was crucial to mitigate the magnitude of the disinformation campaign. Traditional media responded to this call by massively choosing not to report on the content of the leaks once they were made public: they agreed on waiting for the election to end before investigating and publishing on the leaked documents. Several media also drew their readers’ attention to the timing of the leaking; inviting them to use caution when addressing what might be a “destabilization attempt against the presidential election”. In fine, the leak did not significantly influence French voters, despite such efforts by the American alt-right, the usual Russian-affiliated networks and some French political actors.  ◣

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