In 2005, long before he was France’s most-celebrated tech billionaire, Xavier Niel launched dl.free.fr to allow internet users to send large files online, a solution to the problem of email attachment file size constraints at the time. The hosting service was just one of the many ways that Neil’s company Free, an emerging home internet provider, appealed to the web denizens of the age, the emerging Napster-generation of internet users in France.
Some 16-years later, by mid June 2021, the hosting service had been adopted by another set of internet users. In an online chatroom, hidden on the dark web, those responsible for uploading thousands of files of alleged child sexual imagery discussed the changes made to Free’s hosting service, which they had been using for sharing illegal, pornographic material.
“When you reup,” one user says of the “links” posted to downloadable material online, “please select a different host. dl.free.fr did a major purge a couple of days ago. Almost everything posted to this site to dl.free.fr is gone.”
The conversation, captured by screengrab images seen by Forbes, was posted on June 14, just a few days after a report by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection spelled out Free’s role in the distribution—through its large file hosting and sending service dl.free.fr—of some 1.1 million violent, sexual images and videos of children being assaulted that were discovered between 2018 and June 2021.
The dark web chat room members had run into a set of changes quietly implemented by Free without any fanfare. The specific child sexual assault material (CSAM) problem was not acknowledged by Free, but a spokesperson told Forbes a few days later that “technical developments for dl.free” were made “independently from the matter in question” and are “intended to evolve [dl.free] with an interface and different functionalities.” On the dark web, users agreed: Free had made it “impossible to upload to dl.free.fr” unless you are using a Free.fr IP.” The service was now useless to pedophiles–most of whom are likely not Free home internet customers, while those who are would risk making themselves known to law enforcement by displaying their IP address.
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 likes of Canadian Centre for Child Protection and concerned watchdogs around the world, has now sparked an ugly spat between the billionaire-owned Free and the Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO).
Free told Forbes that the Canadian NGO’s process of sending “individual e-mails” to Free alerting the company to each and every discovery of child sexual assault material “makes the process very heavy and significantly lengthens the timeframes involved,” for removing the material. Free said it regularly works with another French non-profit organization, Point de Contact, “and are highly reactive in dealing with any alerts.” Point de Contact would not confirm the number amount of takedown alerts concerning Free since 2018, saying only “To date, 100% of reported [CSAM] to the French hosting providers is removed.” The Canadian NGO remains unimpressed, saying that “[Point de Contact] does not operate anywhere near the same scale as us,” and it is therefore “not surprising that their volume of removal notifications are easier for Free to manage.”
A Free spokesperson responded: “Our Group takes child protection issues extremely seriously and has worked closely with the French authorities for many years in order to identify and remove any illicit content that may transit via our services.”
The Canadian NGO has pushed back, claiming that Free’s slow response to the alerts is about negligence, not volume: “This debate misses the most important issue at hand,” says Lloyd Richardson, director of technology for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, “Free has been aware that its file-hosting service was being exploited for many years by users intent on sharing child sexual abuse imagery, but took insufficient proactive steps to prevent or address the ongoing problem…it took only 48 hours following the public release of our report for the company to permanently resolve the issue by blocking all users from non-Free IP addresses from using its file-hosting service.”
“This proactive step could have been taken at any time over the past several years, but it was not,” Richardson adds. “As a result, the images of children being abused continued to circulate online.” Richardson, who claims to work with around 700 internet service providers, describes Free as an outlier in its “unresponsive or very slow” response to child sexual imagery alerts.
According to data supplied by The Internet Watch foundation (IWF), a U.K.-based charity watchdog group set up in 1996 to remove and eradicate child sexual assault material (CSAM), France is the world’s third worst offender when it comes to the hosting of child sexual assault material, responsible for 4% of material found by IWF traced CSAM imagery around the world to identify the physical server that hosted the content during the calendar year 2020. Within France, the IWF told Forbes that it traced 2,255 instances of child sexual abuse to Free last year, which was 33% of the total French hosted content.
Police And Bait
One of the more eyebrow raising claims Free has made since the publication of the report 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 assault imagery is reported say this is an occasional practice by law enforcement in Europe, but that (in their experience in the U.K.) less than “one in a thousand” CSAM imagery alerts are held by police.
John Carr, one of Europe’s foremost experts on online child safety, has another objection. “You cannot allow children to be bait for criminals,” Carr says. “The idea that you would continue to allow pictures of children being raped to circulate just to help you with your investigation is disgraceful and shouldn’t be allowed.”
A representative for the French police did not respond to a request for comment about investigations of CSAM.
Xavier Niel’s Journey
A former hacker, Xavier Niel is the man behind European telecommunications giant Iliad Group and a major shareholder in Le Monde, the publication of choice among France’s chattering class. Niel—who Forbes estimates to be worth $7.3 billion—counts French President Emmanuel Macron among his key contacts in politics and Europe’s richest person, Bernard Arnault, as his father-in-law (Niel’s partner is Arnault’s daughter Delphine Arnault, a vice president at Louis Vuitton). Niel is revered as a captain of industry, and the one entrepreneur French observers hold up alongside creative technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk as a father-figure to France’s next generation of young disruptors.
Free, which began in 1999 as an internet service provider, is celebrated by stock analysts for his larger telecommunications group Iliad S.A., as one of the most dynamic businesses in France, a challenger to the norm of its fashion luxury superpowers and traditions of dynastic wealth. Now in the business of mobile phones, with a footprint in Italy, Poland and Ireland, Free is the second most popular provider of home internet in France, partly because it attacked the market with low fixed prices of around EUR 20 a month.
But pricing wasn’t the only point on which Free thrived. Emmanuel Paquette, author of a 2016 biography of Niel, characterizes Free as a business built on its founder’s early internet “libertarian” principles, painting a picture of Neil as a child coder, a hacker most famous for his popular and perfectly legal Pink Minitel sex chat sites, and an early internet denizen.
According to Paquette, this background colored Free’s business and its products, including the famous Freebox, a home internet and TV box able to play the kinds of files downloaded from torrent sites. Even today Freebox users–a fanclub of so-called Freenautes–discuss online how to use VPN software to disguise the downloading of torrent files 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,” Paquette says. “That’s why he called the company Free. He thinks you need to be free in terms of prices, but also in terms of doing 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 online child safety expert, has no time for this binary argument, for internet sovereignty on one hand, and against online intervention and regulation on the other. “When you decline to act, what you’re actually doing is providing active assistance to criminals and child abusers, Carr says, “John Stuart Mill’s theory of liberalism—it’s ok to do what you want so long as it doesn’t harm others. Well in this case there’s no question, [Free’s] failure to act harms others. It harms children.”