Since last year, we have been reporting on the “EU Internet Forum” set up by the European Commission to fight terrorism and hate speech online. In reality, the IT-Forum gathers two initiatives: one run by the Home Affairs Directorate General of the European Commission, on “terrorism”; and one run by the Justice and Consumers Directorate General, on “hate speech” (sometimes illegal “hate speech”, sometimes non-specific “hate speech”).
Since the initial meetings of both initiatives took place behind closed doors and the meetings of the terrorism part still do, we have also been busy trying to get information on the nature of the discussions and participants involved. This document pool gives you an overview of the activities of the EU Internet Forum and a list of documents we received upon request from the European Commission.
What is the EU Internet Forum?
According to the European Commission, the IT-Forum’s mission is to “counter terrorist content and hate speech online”. It brings together almost exclusively US Internet companies (such as Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Google and Ask.fm), government officials and law enforcement agencies.
While it is certainly important to address and prosecute illegal online activity, it is worrying that the EU Commission proposes yet again an initiative to encourage Internet companies to take “voluntary” actions in response to a very diverse range of possibly illegal or unwanted online activity. As shown through numerous examples in the UK or France, such voluntary measures often come with collateral damage and have a negative impact on the freedom of expression.
In relation to hate speech, the Commission is relying heavily on a very confused German “voluntary” agreement (pdf), which never appears quite certain if it is referring to illegal content or arbitrary enforcement of service providers’ terms of service. Pressure to implement restrictions on freedom of expression outside a legal framework would breach the spirit, and possibly the letter, of the primary law of the European Union, which requires such restrictions to “be provided for by law and respect the essence of those rights and freedoms”.
All of the terrorism meetings of this new initiative take place behind closed doors and is giving the Commission power to pressure industry into launching initiatives without any accountability for the outcome, as any non-law-based restrictions would be, officially, “voluntary” and therefore would not be subject to the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
As a result of numerous access to document requests and our criticism of the closed nature of the meetings, EDRi was finally been invited to the two most recent meetings of the Forum (albeit only the online hate speech part) in 2016. You can read our full position on the EU Internet Forum here (pdf) and find out more about the dangers of privatised law enforcement in our two papers (pdf and pdf).
Similar failed initiatives that the EU Commission launched in previous years:
- The “Clean IT” project – which had broadly identical goals to the “Internet Forum” – was generously funded by the EU Commission, after the project proposal being initially rejected for being of sub-standard quality, and failed to produce meaningful outcomes.
- The “Stakeholder Dialogue on Illegal Uploading and Downloading”, which aimed to work on copyright enforcement failed to produce any meaningful results.
- The European Commission run a project on “public-private cooperation to counter the dissemination of illegal content within the European Union” – we are not aware of any final recommendations being published.
Official EU documents
- 15 January 2014: The Commission announces the launch of the EU Internet Forum in its Communication “Preventing Radicalisation to terrorism and Violent Extremism” (COM(2013)941) (pdf, page 8).
- 9 October 2014: Joint statement Malmström – Alfano on the informal Ministerial dinner with IT companies.
- 2 March 2015: EU Council Presidency note on the “fight against terrorism” (pdf) which charged the Commission with the creation of a “Forum with the Internet service providers community”.
- 28 April 2015: Communication from the Commission on the European Security Agenda (page 13, pdf).
- 3 December 2015: Press release for the official launch of the EU Internet Forum, describing the “voluntary approach”.
- 19 January 2016: EU Parliament resolution “Towards a Digital Single Market” (2015/2147(INI), paragraph 74) highlights the limitation of liability of an online service provider and asks the Commission “to ensure uniform implementation of this provision in compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights in order to avoid any privatisation of law enforcement.”
- 31 May 2016: The official code of conduct (pdf) is agreed. See EDRi’s reaction here.
Our FOI requests: Events and meetings
- 8 October 2014: Ministerial dinner, hosted by EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström (GestDem 2015/4066):
- 7 May 2015: A preparatory meeting for the formal launch of the EU Internet Forum takes place (GestDem2015/3658)
1. The draft agenda for a preparatory meeting on 7 May 2015 (pdf)
2. The invitation for the first awareness raising session for the Internet industry and EU Member States on 24 July (pdf, redacted)
3. The draft agenda 24 July (pdf)
4. The report of the preparatory meeting on 7 May 2015 (pdf)
Additional documents disclosed after a confirmatory application to the Commission (pdf):
5. Note of 10 June 2015 addressed to the Commissioner asking for endorsement and further guidance (pdf, redacted)
6. Concept note in view of the preparation of the high level event for the launch of the IT Forum at the end of the year (pdf, redacted)
- 24 July 2015: The second preparatory meeting before the official launch of the EU Internet Forum takes place (GestDem 2015/4066):
1. Invitation to the EU Internet Forum on 24 July 2015 (pdf)
2. Preparations of the EU Internet Forum on Awareness Raising (pdf)
3. A list of participants in the meeting of the EU Internet Forum on 24 July 2015 (pdf, redacted)
4. The minutes of the meeting on 24 July 2015 (pdf)
- 3 December 2015: Official launch of the EU Internet Forum (GestDem 2015/6363 and GestDem 2016/0095):
1. A document prepared by the German Ministry of Justice for the fight against online hate speech (TaskForce Ergebnispapier, pdf) was reportedly discussed.
2. “Implementing the European Agenda on Security: The EU Internet Forum, a background paper issued at the meeting” (pdf)
3. EU Commissioner opening speech (pdf)
4. Minutes of the meeting (pdf, redacted)
5. EU Commissioner closing speech (pdf)
6. Participants list (pdf, redacted):
Documents disclosed after a confirmatory application to the Commission:
7. Annotated agenda (pdf)
8. Set of objectives and actions to steer discussions based on comments from the different stakeholders (pdf, redacted )
9. Minutes of the meeting (pdf, a bit less redacted)
10. Explanation of the proposed position on the proposed objectives and actions (not disclosed, see the EU Commission’s decision)
- 16 December 2015: EDRi publishes its position on the EU Internet Forum (pdf)
- 22 January 2016: A meeting of the EU Internet Forum takes place
Documents (GestDem 2016/1420):
1. Reply from the Commission on our access to document request (pdf)
2. Agenda of the 22 January meeting (pdf)
3. Summary of the meeting, pdf (partly disclosed in confirmatory request)
4. List of participants, pdf (partly disclosed in confirmatory request)
- 4 March 2016: A meeting of EU Internet Forum on online hate speech takes place (meeting summary, pdf)
EDRi’s Ombudsman complaint
- 17 February 2016: EDRi submits a complaint to the EU Ombudsman (pdf) – Annex: Full chronology of EDRi’s access to documents requests (pdf)
- 14 April 2016: Response of the EU Ombudsman (Letter, pdf) informing us that an inquiry will be opened.
- 15 June 2016: Inspection report by the EU Ombudsman (pdf) and accompanying letter (pdf)
- 27 October: EDRi receives a letter from the Ombudsman including the EU Commission’s reaction to our claim (letter pdf)
- 29 November: EDRi responds to the EU Commission’s reaction (letter, pdf)
- 5 July 2017: Ombudsman Decision in case 292/2016/AMF on the European Commission’s handling of a request for access to documents related to the launch of the EU Internet Forum (letter, pdf)