By Kirsten Fiedler

Every once in a while, the European Commission launches talks with the Internet industry to encourage companies to take voluntary actions in response to a very diverse range of possibly illegal or unwanted online activity.

Past initiatives have not been hugely successful, and they have frequently raised concerns regarding their vagueness, their lack of transparency and their potential to limit the user’s fundamental rights. Failures include the CleanIT project and the “safer social networking principles for the EU”. The fact that the EU institutions have a legal obligation not to implement “self-regulatory” measures when fundamental rights are at stake appears to be of no concern.

In 2015, the Commission is set to launch yet another initiative, “voluntarily” imposed by internet companies – this time to “tackle terrorism and prevent radicalisation”. In April 2015, the Commission published its “European Agenda on Security” in which it re-stated its intention to launch “an EU Forum with IT companies to help counter terrorist propaganda and addressing concerns about new encryption technologies”. It is important to note that, in such initiatives, the Commission sees itself as a catalyst – it is in the process, it causes the process to happen, but it is not actually part of the process, thereby avoiding any legal obligations or accountability.

One would imagine that the Commission officially announces the launch of a particular activity with a clear idea about what this activity is supposed to achieve, who shall be invited, and by when this activity should be concluded. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. At the end of April, EDRi submitted an access to documents request in order to receive information about:

  • participating businesses in this “Forum with the Internet service providers community”
  • objectives and tasks of the Forum
  • minutes of meetings of the Forum
  • a list of upcoming meetings of the Forum
  • a timeline of the work of the Forum

Fifteen days later we received the following message: “We regret to inform you that no documents exist for the time being that would correspond to the description given in your application.” As it is simply the catalyst, it is causing all of this to happen, but producing the information itself would imply political and legal accountability, which is to be avoided at all costs.

In its letter, the Commission goes on to explain that the goals of this Forum have been laid out in a Communication on “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism” (point 2.6). In this document, dated 15 January 2014, it also announced the planned set up of that Forum. The private sector should do “more than just prohibiting or removing illegal content” and that additionally a “positive and carefully focused message needs to be spread”. Now, one and a half years later, the Commission still has neither a clear view on what the private sector should accomplish, nor by when this unspecified activity should happen. We have therefore submitted another application to request confirmation that there are no further documents or communications between the private sector and the Commission following the announcement to “set up a forum with key players in the industry”.

It is worrying that the Commission continues to propose initiatives that could have a negative impact on the freedom of communication, and that these initiatives are not based on law as prescribed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. It is even more worrying that the Commission is either keeping the relevant documents from the public or that, once again, it has no idea what it wants to achieve.

On the other hand, this approach gives the Commission power (to pressure industry into launching such initiatives) without any accountability for the outcome. What political institution would not want power without responsibility? One which has a “better regulation” agenda, possibly.

EDRi’s access to documents request
http://www.asktheeu.org/request/forum_with_the_internet_service

EU Commission response
http://www.asktheeu.org/en/request/1929/response/6868/attach/2/GestDem%202015%202271%20Ares%202015%201987059.pdf

EDRi’s confirmatory application and request for an internal review
http://www.asktheeu.org/en/request/forum_with_the_internet_service#outgoing-4224

EU Commission Communication: The European Agenda on Security (28.04.2015)
http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/e-library/documents/basic-documents/docs/eu_agenda_on_security_en.pdf

EU Commission Communication: Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism: Strengthening the EU’s Response (15.01.2014)
http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/e-library/documents/policies/crisis-and-terrorism/radicalisation/docs/communication_on_preventing_radicalisation_and_violence_promoting_extremism_201301_en.pdf

(Contribution by Kirsten Fiedler, EDRi)

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