By Mathieu Rosemain
PARIS (Reuters) - France's government is seeking to give the authorities the power to trawl social media for signs of tax avoidance and fraud, according to a provision of the budget 2020 draft law that is being debated in parliament.
The move would significantly enhance the state's surveillance apparatus online by letting it collect masses of public data, raising concerns from the country's data protection authority and several advocacy groups.
Under an article of the draft bill, which was reviewed and approved by the National Assembly's finance committee late on Wednesday, the customs and tax authorities would be permitted to carry out a three-year "experiment" in monitoring data.
They could review social media users' profiles, photographs and posts, and use computer algorithms to detect signs of tax evasion, smuggling or undeclared income.
"If you say you're not a fiscal resident in France and you keep posting pictures on Instagram from France, there might be an issue," Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin said in an interview with newspaper Le Figaro.
President Emmanuel Macron's holds a majority of seats in the lower house, which is expected to pass the provision and the rest of the bill by the end of the year. Its approval by the house's finance committee increases the chances of it being fully adopted.
"An experiment without any goals is a joke," said Arthur Messaud, a legal expert at French internet freedom advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. "We're putting the cat among the pigeons by allowing the generalised monitoring of the Internet for everything and anything."
The French data watchdog, CNIL, known in Europe for being a staunch defender of privacy rights, also stressed in a statement the risks the policy would pose for individual freedoms, while recognising that the government's aims were legitimate.
Asked about the measure after a weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday Darmanin told Reuters: "I'd like to point out that there is nothing extraordinary here, other countries are already doing it, such as the United States or Britain since 2010 for example."
In his interview with Le Figaro, Darmanin said artificial intelligence could be used to fight fraud. He said the programme would have to be approved by the CNIL and the country's highest administrative court.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Peter Graff)