French government slaps down Free’s anti-Google ad-blocking

Last week the French ISP Free issued a set-top box firmware update that introduced ad-blocking by default. At the time, I wondered whether the default nature of the blocking was accidental — it now seems that it was quite deliberate, and specifically targeted at Google(s goog) ads, too. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t an experiment that lasted very long.

It was the French government that put an end to it. According to a New York Times report of a press conference on Monday, the country’s digital economy minister Fleur Pellerin stepped in and told Free to restore full access to the web, ads and all.

“An internet service provider cannot unilaterally implement such blocking,” Pellerin was quoted as saying. “This kind of blocking is inconsistent with a free and open internet, to which I am very attached.”

Free’s move had of course alarmed publishers who rely on advertising for their revenues. There was more to it, though.

It seems it wasn’t purely coincidental that this happened at more-or-less the same time as French regulators began to delve into Free’s alleged degradation of YouTube traffic. An email sent to a journalist by Xavier Niel, founder of Free parent Iliad, strongly suggested that the ad-blocking was just a warning shot in an ongoing war with Google. Indeed, it appears that only Google ads were blocked.

So, with its ad-blocking turned off again, Free has done what it intended to do, namely to demonstrate to Google that it can hurt the company’s core activities in France. However, Free also managed to get the relevant government minister to come out in favor of net neutrality, which is precisely what the ISP is trying to do away with. In soccer terms, this was what you might call an own goal.

The case exposes a deep irony in the treatment Google has received in France. Bear in mind that, just months ago, the French government was siding with the nation’s publishers in a bid to get Google to pay licensing fees for reproducing snippets of text in Google News. As in Germany, opponents of that stance pointed out that publishers benefited from Google News, which sends traffic their way. Now the French government and publishers are effectively holding hands in defence of Google.

However, it would be premature for the U.S. firm to break out the champagne.

“What is the financial incentive for operators to invest billions in their networks without seeing any return?” Pellerin also asked. “We have to put in place a win-win system.”

If Pellerin is countenancing a system where Google would have to pay Free to carry all that YouTube traffic, that is “inconsistent with a free and open internet”, to borrow her own words. That would be doing away with net neutrality – and, by making content delivery even more of a big money game than it already is, it would also disadvantage smaller players that want to break in.

If the French government really wants to keep the internet open, and to give French startups an opportunity to take on the likes of YouTube, it should perhaps try to make its messaging around net neutrality a bit more considered and consistent.