Council of Europe’s Actions Belie its Pledges to Involve Civil Society in Development of Cross Border Police Powers Treaty
As the Council of Europe’s flawed cross border surveillance treaty moves through its final phases of approval, time is running out to ensure cross-border investigations occur with robust privacy and human rights safeguards in place. The treaty’s drafting process has been deeply flawed, with civil society groups, defense attorneys, and even data protection regulators largely sidelined.
As the Council of Europe’s flawed cross border surveillance treaty moves through its final phases of approval, time is running out to ensure cross-border investigations occur with robust privacy and human rights safeguards in place. The innocuously named “Second Additional Protocol” to the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Cybercrime Convention seeks to set a new standard for law enforcement investigations—including those seeking access to user data—that cross international boundaries, and would grant a range of new international police powers.
But the treaty’s drafting process has been deeply flawed, with civil society groups, defense attorneys, and even data protection regulators largely sidelined. We are hoping that CoE’s Parliamentary Committee (PACE), which is next in line to review the draft Protocol, will give us the opportunity to present and take our privacy and human rights concerns seriously as it formulates its opinion and recommendations before the CoE’s final body of approval, the Council of Ministers, decides the Protocol’s fate. According to the Terms of Reference for the preparation of the Draft Protocol, the Council of Ministers may consider inviting parties “other than member States of the Council of Europe to participate in this examination.”
The CoE relies on committees to generate the core draft of treaty texts. In this instance, the CoE’s Cybercrime Committee (T-CY) Plenary negotiated and drafted the Protocol’s text with the assistance of a drafting group consisting of representatives of State Parties. The process, however, has been fraught with problems. To begin with, T-CY’s Terms of Reference for the drafting process drove a lengthy, non-inclusive procedure that relied on closed sessions (Article 4.3 T-CY Rules of Procedures). While the Terms of Reference allow the T-CY to invite individual subject matter experts on an ad hoc basis, key voices such as data protection authorities, civil society experts, and criminal defense lawyers were mostly sidelined. Instead, the process has been largely commandeered by law enforcement, prosecutors and public safety officials (see here, and here).
Earlier in the process, in April 2018, EDRi, our member EFF, and 90 civil society organizations from across the globe requested the COE Secretariat General provide more transparency and meaningful civil society participation as the treaty was being negotiated and drafted—and not just during the CoE’s annual and somewhat exclusive Octopus Conferences. However, since T-CY began its consultation process in July 2018, input from external stakeholders has been limited to Octopus Conference participation and some written comments. Civil society organizations were not included in the plenary groups and subgroups where text development actually occurs, nor was our input meaningfully incorporated.
Compounding matters, the T-CY’s final online consultation, where the near final draft text of the Protocol was first presented to external stakeholders, only provided a 2.5 week window for input. The draft text included many new and complex provisions, including the Protocol’s core privacy safeguards, but excluded key elements such as the explanatory text that would normally accompany these safeguards. As was flagged by civil society, privacy regulators, and even by the CoE’s own data protection committee, two and a half weeks is not enough time to provide meaningful feedback on such a complex international treaty. More than anything, this short consultation window gave the impression that T-CY’s external consultations were truly performative in nature.
Despite these myriad shortcomings, the Council of Ministers (CoE’ final statutory decision-making body, comprising member States’ Foreign Affairs Ministers) responded to our process concerns arguing that external stakeholders had been consulted during the Protocol’s drafting process. Even more oddly, the Council of Ministers’ justified the demonstrably curtailed final consultation period by invoking its desire to complete the Protocol on the 20th anniversary of the CoE’s Budapest Cybercrime Convention (that is, by this November 2021).
With great respect, we kindly disagree with Ministers’ response. If T-CY wished to meet its November 2021 deadline, it had many options open to it. For instance, it could have included external stakeholders from civil society and from privacy regulators in its drafting process, as it had been urged to do on multiple occasions.
More importantly, this is a complex treaty with wide ranging implications for privacy and human rights in countries across the world. It is important to get it right, and ensure that concerns from civil society and privacy regulators are taken seriously and directly incorporated into the text. Unfortunately, as the text stands, it raises many substantive problems, including the lack of systematic judicial oversight in cross-border investigations and the adoption of intrusive identification powers that pose a direct threat to online anonymity. The Protocol also undermines key data protection safeguards relating to data transfers housed in central instruments like the European Union’s Law Enforcement Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation.
The Protocol now stands with CoE’s PACE, which will issue an opinion on the Protocol and might recommend some additional changes to its substantive elements. It will then fall to CoE’s Council of Ministers to decide whether to accept any of PACE’s recommendations and adopt the Protocol, a step which we still anticipate will occur in November. Together with EFF, Derechos Digitales and NGOs around the world hope that PACE takes our concerns seriously, and that the Council produces a treaty that puts privacy and human rights first.
The article was published on 23 July 2021.
Image credit: EFF (CC BY 3.0 US)