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The APC European Internet Rights Project

The European Union


Internet Rights report on the European Union
A report on the EU's policies in relation to Internet Rights

Key Internet Rights Issues in Europe
The key issues that have arisen from the European project:
The Echelon Surveillance System
An overview of the Draft Report of the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Echelon, and it's value in the debate on freedom of communication

The Argument Over Data Retention in the European Union
Analysis of current moves to enforce the collection and retention of communications data across the EU, in part as a result of the Cybercrime Convention

Other information relating to the EU and Internet Rights:

How the European Union works and how to influence its policies
A paper on how the decision making processes of the EU operate, and how to influence them

European Union Action Plan on Promoting Safer Use of the Internet
A report for Association for Progressive Communications on the implications of the early proposals by the EU to regulate the use of the Internet

Statement on the Retention of Traffic Data for Law Enforcement Purposes
A paper by David Smith, Assistant Information Commissioner in the UK, presented to the EU Cybercrime Forum Plenary Session

Key Internet Rights Issues in Europe

Privacy, surveillance and monitoring

A number of key Internet Rights issues dominate the European scene. The major one has been the attack on Internet privacy rights that is taking place in the name of tackling "cybercrime" and, more recently, the "war against terror".

Unacceptable surveillance of email correspondence and Internet use are being proposed and in some cases are already being implemented. Whilst criminals and terrorists will quickly find ways of avoiding this surveillance, it is the general public that will be left with their online activities being monitored.

The main vehicle for the implementation of this surveillance is the Council of Europe's Cybercrime Convention. The framing of this Convention must surely serve as a classic example of a one-sided process leading to an unbalanced outcome. The arguments of law enforcement completely dominated the debate leaving little room for opposing opinions to be heard.

On the face of it, the European Union debate on cybercrime has been more open. The establishment of the Cybercrime Forum by the European Commission, at least allowing all sides to be heard, is welcome.

Some MEPs and sections of the European Commission are to be congratulated for the strong stand they are making to defend the Internet privacy of EU citizens. This has been particularly focused around opposing attempts from the Council of Ministers, led by the UK, to overthrow EU legislation restricting the retention of communication traffic data other than "for billing purposes".

The European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Echelon also did an excellent job on defending online privacy. They ended any doubts that the Echelon military surveillance system existed and made a strong stand against its spying on EU citizens.

Web Content 'Take-down' policy

Other severe attempts to restrict free speech on the Internet are taking place within the European context. In Britain, attempts by Internet Service Providers to maintain that they had no responsibility for content hosted on their servers, predictably collapsed in the face of the Laurence Godfrey versus Demon judgement. The resulting panic from ISPs, and their adoption of a policy of immediately taking down any website content the public complained about, has seriously curtailed Internet free speech in Britain.

In Spain, the government's use of the EU's Copyright Directive (PDF format) to frame seriously restrictive legislation on website content illustrated once again the need for Internet Rights lobbying at an early stage in the framing of EU legislation.

As a response to the threats to Internet free speech APC has developed with other partners, a Rapid Response Network to defend threatened material that is consistent with its mission and charter.

European enlargement - Key issues for 'candidate countries'

EU enlargement presents a major challenge for social NGOs. It provides an opportunity to bring about common social conditions and rights in an area encompassing 500 million people. Ensuring that these are of the highest standard means building and strengthening embryonic social NGOs in the applicant countries, many of which are emerging from conditions where civil society did not exist. The Internet can play a vital role in this by linking social NGOs across the boundaries that formerly divided them.

In February 2001, APC's European Internet Rights Project devoted considerable discussion to this issue at a series of workshops in Prague which brought together participants from Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Two issues emerged as central.

Internet privacy and free speech rights in Western Europe

Firstly, the attack on Internet privacy and free speech rights in Western Europe can result in serious setbacks for the emergence of democracy in Eastern Europe. Governments there are placing great emphasis on proving their suitability to join the EU. The want to show they have the same standards as existing EU member states. Earlier, this produced positive effects on Internet Rights in these countries.

Of particular note here is the case of Bulgaria, where ISOC Bulgaria was able to defeat extremely restrictive government regulation of the Internet by pointing to their contravention of existing EU standards. A diminution of these standards would undoubtedly be used in Eastern Europe to justify a reversal of democratic Internet developments there.

There is often a much stronger grasp within the populations of Eastern Europe of the importance of some Internet Rights issues than there is in the West - if you have lived under the Stasi you understand the importance of private communications! This perception, if brought into the debate on these questions in Western Europe, could help to overcome much of the public complacency that exists over them there.

Internet Access - monopolisation of telecommunications infrastructure

The other major issue that has to be confronted in building Internet links between the social movements and NGOs of Western and Eastern Europe is the question of Internet access in Eastern Europe. In most cases this remains severely restricted by lack of adequate telecommunications infrastructure.

The answer generally advanced by politicians in Western Europe to solve this situation has been simply to insist on privatisation of the existing state monopolies, thereby supposedly introducing competition and a drive to establish new markets for Internet access. But, in most cases, nothing of the sort is happening. Particularly in areas like the Balkans, there is unwillingness by businesses to make long-term investment in what is still seen as an unstable area. Whilst some relatively quick returns are being made out of the mobile phone market, the Internet is seen as a difficult area to realise any profits from, particularly since the collapse of the .com boom.

This is resulting in a situation where attempts to sell existing state telecomm monopolies are often being faced with just one bidder. Their motives are often far more political than commercial. Such a situation exists in the case of OTE, the Greek telecomm monopoly, being the only major telecomm bidder in most Balkans countries.

OTE is still largely state owned and it is well known that the Greek government has been the driving force behind OTE's attempts to buy up telecommunications superstructure across the Balkans. Similar concerns could be expressed over Deutsche Telecom's control, via MATAV, of Hungary's telecommunications infrastructure. Such "re-nationalisation by a another nation" is barred between EU member states, but moves by the European Commission to stop it happening in Eastern Europe were blocked by the EU Council of Ministers.

The result of all this is that, in most cases, old monopolies are simply being replaced with new ones. These new monopolies are making some investment in replacing old out-dated infrastructure, but are often accompanying this with massive price rises that threaten to make Internet access beyond the reach of most of the population.

This issue came to a head in Yugoslavia in August 2001 with a widespread revolt, consisting of both online and offline protests, over price rises being imposed by the Italian Telecom/OTE monopoly that had bought up Yugoslavia's old state run telecommunications system. This revolt, which brought about a partial climb-down, was led by young people demanding the right to be able to access the Internet and be part of the international youth culture developing there. APC's European Internet Rights project sees these youth as an important factor in the battle for Internet Rights in Eastern Europe and we are working to assist them in their fight, particularly in the Balkans region.

The Echelon Surveillance System

The Association for Progressive Communications wholeheartedly welcomes the Draft Report of the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Echelon. We congratulate the Committee and particularly its Rapporteur, Gerhard Schmid on the excellent job they have done.

The Report:
  1. Firmly establishes that Echelon exists. This represents a major triumph for campaigners like Duncan Campbell and Nicky Hager, who have untiringly sought to expose Echelon to the world, whilst governments have tried to deny its existence.

  2. Questions the compatibility of Echelon with existing European Union law and, in particular, whether the UK's involvement in Echelon is compatible with its membership of the EU. At the Echelon Committee meeting on Tuesday, a representative of the Swedish EU Presidency conceded that, as a result of the Report, the European Council might have to take action against the UK.

  3. Expresses the belief that Echelon is a violation of the fundamental right to privacy as defined under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. At the same time, the Report calls for these Articles to be "brought in line with modern communication and interception methods".

  4. Calls for "a common level of protection against intelligence operations based on the highest level which exists in any member state". The Committee is particularly critical of the situation in the UK and some other member states where there is no parliamentary oversight of surveillance. It calls for national parliaments to set up "specific, formally structured monitoring committees responsible for supervising and scrutinising the activities of the intelligence services."

  5. Calls for the development and promotion of European "user-friendly open-source encryption software". The Report says it wants "encryption to become the norm".

  6. Calls for the European Parliament to hold an international congress for NGOs from Europe, the USA and other countries to provide a forum on the protection of privacy against telecommunications surveillance.

APC strongly supports the Committee on all these points. Its findings are a powerful rebuff to attempts by the UK Home Office, apparently endorsed by EuroISPA at its recent conference "Future Trends in Internet Security", to present the UK as a model to be copied by the rest of Europe. On the contrary, although the remit of the Echelon Committee only covered military interception of communications and not police operations, the Committee's findings make clear that they regard the surveillance situation as a whole in the UK as incompatible with proper democratic standards. Many members of the Committee are calling for further investigations to cover police surveillance across the EU.

APC has itself worked to expose Echelon. Last year we organised, via our member in Japan, JCANet, a series of presentations on Echelon given by Duncan Campbell, including at the Japanese Parliament (Diet) and the Japanese Bar Association. Following this, a representative of APC was invited to give a presentation on Echelon at the People's Forum that took place in parallel with last years Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM 2000).

APC particularly welcomes the recognition by the Echelon Committee that the Internet and other modern forms of communication create whole new areas where it is necessary to clearly define human rights. This view was forcibly put to the Committee at its Tuesday meeting by Finnish MEP Reino Paasilinna. It was vital for protecting democracy that we clearly define privacy rights in the new communications technologies, he maintained, or we would have a situation where every move individuals made would be monitored. He considered this would be equivalent to reading our thoughts. Whilst he felt sure that criminals would undoubtedly find ways of avoiding such surveillance it was ordinary citizens that needed protection.

The work of APC's European Internet Rights Project is based on the issues raised by Paasilinna and the Echelon Committee over defining human rights in the new communications media, particularly the Internet. Unless this is done, the Internet, which holds such enormous potential for increasing democracy could be transformed into the monitored and controlled nightmare that Paasalinna outlined.

APC believes it is necessary to incorporate specific rights of privacy, as well as access, freedom of expression and rights awareness regarding the Internet and other new information technologies into the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. At the same time, we strongly support the European Trade Union Committee and the Platform of Social NGOs in calling for the Charter to be made legally binding in all EU Member states. As a contribution to this critical debate, APC has developed an Internet Rights Charter outlining seven major Internet Rights themes and welcomes comment and discussion on any aspect of the charter.

The Echelon Committee has made an excellent start in the work of defining the privacy rights of EU citizens in the new communications technologies. We look forward to its final report and hope that it will receive the full support of the European Parliament as a whole.

For further information on Echelon see:

Draft Report of the European Parliament's Temporary Committee on Echelon
The results of the european Parliament's investigations into the Echelon system

Interception Capabilities 2000
Report to the Director General for Research of the European Parliament (Scientific and Technical Options Assessment programme office) on the development of surveillance technology and risk of abuse of economic information

APC Press Release, 23rd June 2001
Press release on the release of the Temporary Committee on Echelon's report, and a commentary on its findings

The Argument Over Data Retention in the European Union

The Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime created a dangerous precedent by being heavily weighted in favour of law enforcement bodies against privacy rights. However, there has been a widespread determination to defend the privacy rights of European citizens against the kind of surveillance the Convention proposes coming from within the European Union.

Attempts by the British government to alter EU policy, via the Council of Ministers, towards the Convention's stress on law enforcement rather than privacy rights is meeting with strong opposition from both the European Parliament and from within the European Commission. This has been particularly focused on moves to remove EU legislation restricting the retention of communication traffic data other than "for billing purposes". Stefano Rodota, Chairman of the Working Party on Data Protection and Privacy, set up by the Commission, wrote to the Presidency of the EU on this issue:
    "It seems that some Member States would like to change this balance in favour of increasing the possibilities of law enforcement authorities, beyond the scope of what the European Court on Human Rights has accepted in the course of case law on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

    The Article 29 Data Protection Working Party considers that the Council and the European Parliament should resist any change of the existing provisions guaranteeing confidentiality of communications (Article 5) and limited processing of traffic data (Article 6). ... Systematic and preventative storage of EU citizens communications and related traffic data would undermine the fundamental rights to privacy, data protection, freedom of expression, liberty and presumption of innocence. Could the Information Society still claim to be a democratic society under such circumstances?

    The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union recognises all these fundamental rights and freedoms and requires that any limitation on the exercise thereof must respect the essence of these rights and freedoms. Moreover, the Charter takes a clear position on the tendency of protection for those rights that are also guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights as it states that Union law may provide more extensive protection. A lower level of protection would be legally and politically unacceptable."

The events of September 11th, 2001 gave new impetus to the attempts to overturn the EU legislation protecting the privacy of its citizens against surveillance of traffic data. It was argued by the US and UK governments that this privacy had to be curtailed as part of the "war against terror". The European Commission held the plenary session of a "Cybercrime Forum" to discuss the issue of traffic data retention on 27th November. The Information Commissioners, appointed in every EU member state to defend data privacy, made clear their strong opposition to blanket traffic data retention through a powerful speech by David Smith from the Office of the Information Commissioner in the UK.

A similar determination to defend privacy rights on this issue has been expressed by the European Parliament. Its Committee on Citizens' Rights and Freedoms, Justice and Home Affairs voted 22-12 for a policy opposing the UK's proposed changes towards law enforcement. The policy was moved by Marco Cappato a Radical MEP from Italy. After the vote, he said:
    "The Civil Liberties Committee expressed itself in favour of a strict regulation of law enforcement authorities' access to personal data of citizens, such as communication traffic and location data. This decision is fundamental because in this way the EP blocks EU States' efforts underway in the Council to put their citizens under generalised and pervasive surveillance, following the Echelon model".

Strong pressure is being put on MEPs by some national governments and political parties to reverse their stand on this, but, so far, the majority have stood firm. A final vote on the European Parliament's second reading position will take place at its plenary session on 15 May.

For further information on data rentention see:

Statement on the Retention of Traffic Data for Law Enforcement Purposes
A paper by David Smith, Assistant Information Commissioner in the UK, presented to the EU Cybercrime Forum Plenary Session

Comments on the EU Cybercrime Forum: Tecnical Issues Around Data Retention (PDF format)
A paper by George Danezis on the practical implications of data rentention, and the technical and cost barriers involved

CCTV for inside your head: Blanket Traffic Data Retention and the Emergency Anti-Terrorism Legislation
An article by Caspar Bowden of FIPR on the impacts of blanket data retention under the UK's Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Bill

This page was last updated 8th May 2002