European Commission must uphold privacy, security and free expression by withdrawing new law

In May, the European Commission proposed a new law: the CSA Regulation. If passed, this law would turn the internet into a space that is dangerous for everyone’s privacy, security and free expression. EDRi is one of 99 organisations calling instead for tailored, effective, rights-compliant and technically-feasible alternatives to tackle this grave issue.

By EDRi · June 8, 2022

"When you fundamentally undermine how the internet works, you make it less safe for everyone. If passed, this law will turn the internet into a space that is dangerous for everyone’s privacy, security and free expression. This includes the very children that the legislation aims to protect."

- 99 civil society & professional groups

A group of people, including a woman using a phone, a journalist and a protester are surveilled by pairs of eyes following their digital activity.

Today, EDRi joins 98 other civil society organisations and professional bodies in writing to the European Commission with a strong demand: “European Commission: uphold privacy, security and free expression by withdrawing new law“. We caution EU politicians and governments that when you fundamentally undermine how the internet works, you make it less safe for everyone.

The 85 signatories of this letter are made up of a broad range of groups working across human rights – including the digital rights of adults and young people; the protection of journalists and media freedom; lawyers; whistle-blowers; gender justice; democracy and peace; workers; children’s health, and more. We share a commitment to protecting online privacy, security and freedom of expression for everyone (including children) globally.

These rights allow us to do our jobs, raise our voices and hold power to account without arbitrary intrusion, persecution or repression. These rights are also important for providing confidential support to survivors, for developing our autonomy and sense of self, and for accessing and enjoying almost all our other human and civil rights.

The signatories of the letter warn that the European Commission’s proposed CSA Regulation is likely to do far more harm than good. In the important fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation, we support measures that are targeted, effective and proportionate. Many of us have previously spoken out about how to ensure that measures to keep children safe online are done according to existing human rights, the rule of law, and due process frameworks. In our work, we have direct experience of how such rules and principles are essential to uphold democracy, access to justice and the presumption of innocence.

Unfortunately, we do not believe that such measures are to be found in the proposed legislation. In fact, the proposal relies on technologies that are not able to do what the Regulation claims, and instead will attack encrypted communications, open internet spaces and online anonymity. That’s why we want the Commission to do better to tackle this critically-important issue in a way that respects privacy, security and free expression.

Read the full letter:

Dear European Commissioners,

When you fundamentally undermine how the internet works, you make it less safe for everyone.

We write to you as 99 civil society and professional (trade union) organisations working across human rights, media freedom, technology and democracy in the digital age. Collectively, we call on you to withdraw the ‘Regulation laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse (CSA Regulation) and to pursue an alternative which is compatible with EU fundamental rights.

It is not possible to have private and secure communications whilst building in direct access for governments and companies. This will also open the door for all types of malicious actors. It is not possible to have a safe internet infrastructure which promotes free expression and autonomy if internet users can be subjected to generalised scanning and filtering, and denied anonymity.

The proposed CSA Regulation has made a political decision to consider scanning and surveillance technologies safe despite widespread expert opinion to the contrary. If passed, this law will turn the internet into a space that is dangerous for everyone’s privacy, security and free expression.1 This includes the very children that this legislation aims to protect.

These rules will make social media companies liable for the private messages shared by their users. It will force providers to use risky and inaccurate tools in order to be in control of what all of us are typing and sharing at all times. The Impact Assessment accompanying the proposal encourages companies to deploy Client-Side Scanning to surveil their users despite recognising that service providers will be reluctant to do so over security concerns. This would constitute an unprecedented attack on our rights to private communications and the presumption of innocence.

It is not just adults that rely on privacy and security. As the United Nations and UNICEF state, online privacy is vital for young people’s development and self-expression, and they should not be subjected to generalised surveillance. The UK Royal College of Psychiatrists highlights that snooping is harmful for children, and that policies based in empowerment and education are more effective.

The CSA Regulation will cause severe harm in a wide variety of ways :

  • A child abuse survivor who wants to confide in a trusted adult about their abuse could have their private message flagged, passed on to a social media company employee for review, then to law enforcement to investigate. This could disempower survivors, infringe on their dignity, and strongly disincentivise them from taking steps to seek help at their own pace;
  • Whistleblowers and sources wanting to anonymously share stories of government corruption would no longer be able to trust online communications services, as end-to-end encryption would be compromised. Efforts to hold power to account would become much more difficult;
  • A young-looking adult lawfully sending intimate pictures to their partner could have those highly-personal images mistakenly flagged by the AI tools, revealed to a social media employee, and then passed on to law enforcement;
  • These inevitable false flags will over-burden law enforcement who already lack the resources to deal with existing cases. This would allocate their limited capacities towards sifting through huge volumes of lawful communications, instead of deleting abuse material and pursuing investigations into suspects and perpetrators;
  • Secure messenger service (like Signal) would be forced to technically alter their services, with users unable to access secure alternatives. This would put anyone that relies on them at risk: lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, NGO workers (including those who help victims), governments and more. If the service wanted to keep its messages secure, it would be fined 6% of its global turnover; or would be forced to withdraw from the EU market;
  • By undermining the end-to-end encryption that journalists rely on to communicate securely with sources, the regulation will also seriously jeopardise source protection, weaken digital security for journalists and have a severe chilling effect on media freedom;
  • Once this technology has been implemented, governments around the world could pass laws forcing companies to scan for evidence of political opposition, of activism, of labour unions that are organising, of people seeking abortions in places where it is criminalised, or any other behaviours that a government wants to suppress.
  • These threats pose an even greater risk to disenfranchised, persecuted and marginalised groups around the world.

In recent years, the EU has fought to be a beacon of the human rights to privacy and data protection, setting a global standard. But with the proposed CSA Regulation, the European Commission has signalled a U-turn towards authoritarianism, control, and the destruction of online freedom. This will set a dangerous precedent for mass surveillance around the world.

In order to protect free expression, privacy and security online, we the undersigned 99 organisations call on you as the College of Commissioners to withdraw this Regulation.

We call instead for tailored, effective, rights-compliant and technically feasible alternatives to tackle the grave issue of child abuse. Any such approaches must respect the EU Digital Decade commitment to a “safe and secure” digital environment for everyone – and that includes children.

Signed,

01. Access Now – International
02. Alternatif Bilisim (AiA-Alternative Informatics Association) – International
03. Agora Association – Turkey
04. APADOR-CH – Romania
05. ApTI Romania – Romania
06. ARTICLE 19 – International
07. Aspiration – United States
08. Association for Support of Marginalized Workers STAR-STAR Skopje – Republic of North Macedonia
09. Attac Austria – Austria
10. Aufstehn.at – Austria
11. AustrianChamberofLabour – Austria
12. Berlin Strippers Collective – Germany
13. Big Brother Watch – United Kingdom
14. Bits of Freedom – Netherlands
15. Center for Civil and Human Rights (Poradňa) – Slovakia
16. Center for Democracy & Technology – Europe
17. Chaos Computer Club – Germany
18. Centrum Cyfrowe – Europe
19. Citizen D / Državljan D – Slovenia
20. Civil Liberties Union for Europe – European
21. CloudPirat – Germany
22. Committee to Protect Journalists – EU/International
23. comun.al – Latin America
24. COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain – Europe
25. D64 – Zentrum für Digitalen Fortschritt – Germany
26. Dataskydd.net – Sweden
27. Defend Democracy – International
28. Defend Digital Me – United Kingdom
29. Deutsche Vereinigung für Datenschutz (DVD) – Germany
30. DFRI – Sweden
31.DigitalAdvisor– The Nederlands
32. Digitalcourage – Germany
33. Digitale Gesellschaft – Germany
34. Digitale Gesellschaft / Digital Society – Switzerland
35. Digital Rights Ireland – Ireland
36. European Digital Rights (EDRi) – Europe
37. European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance (ESWA) – Europe and Central Asia
38. Electronic Frontier Finland – Finland
39. Elektronisk Forpost Norge (EFN) – Norway
40. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – United States
41. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) – International
42. epicenter.works for digital rights – Austria
43. Equipo Decenio Afrodescendiente – Spain
44. Internet Society Catalan Chapter (ISOC-CAT) – Europe
45. Eticas Foundation – International
46. European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL) – Europe
47. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) – Europe
48. Fight for the Future – US/International
49. Fitug e.V. – Germany
50. Fundación Karisma – Colombia
51. The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) – UK/Europe
52. Global Forum for Media Development – International
53. GAT – Grupo de Ativistas em Tratamentos – Portugal
54. Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights – Italy
55. Homo Digitalis – Greece
56. Human Rights House Zagreb – Croatia
57. imaniti.org – Czech Republic
58. iNGO European Media Platform – Europe
59. International Press Institute (IPI) – International
60. Internet Governance Project – International
61. Internet Society – International
62. Interpeer gUG (gemeinnützig) – Europe
63. Irish Council for Civil Liberties – Ireland
64. ISOC Brazil – Brazilian Chapter of the Internet Society – Brazil
65. IT-Pol – Denmark
66. Iuridicum Remedium, z.s – Czech Republic
67. La Quadrature du Net – France
68. Ligue des droits humains –Belgium
69. Lobby4kids – Kinderlobby– Austria
70. Netherlands Helsinki Committee – The Netherlands
71. Nordic Privacy Center – Nordics
72. Norway Chapter of the Internet Society – Norway
73. Norwegian Unix User Group – Norway
74. Österreichischer Rechtsanwaltskammertag – Austria
75. Open Rights Group – United Kingdom
76. quintessenz – Verein zur Wiederherstellung der Bürgerrechte im Informationszeitalter – Austria
77. Panoptykon Foundation – Poland
78. Peace Institute – Slovenia
79. PIC Amsterdam – Netherlands
80. Platform Burgerrechten – The Netherlands
81. Presseclub Concordia – Austria
82. Privacy First – Netherlands
83. Privacy International –International
84. Ranking Digital Rights –International
85. Sex Workers Alliance Ireland –Ireland
86. SMEX – MENA
87. Social Media Exchange – Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
88. SZEXE – Association of Hungarian Sex-Workers – Hungary
89.StatewatchEU – Europe
90. S.T.O.P. – The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project – United States
91.Stichting Stop Online Shaming – the Netherlands
92. Vrijschrift.org – The Netherlands
93. Whistleblower-Netzwerk – Germany
94. Whose Knowledge? – International
95. Wikimedia – International
96.WikimediaDeutschlande.V. – Germany
97. Women’s Link Worldwide –Europe
98.WorkerInfoExchange–International
99. Xnet – Spain

You can still add your organisation’s signature to the open letter by filling out this form.

Please note that this letter was originally published on 8 June 2022 with 73 signatories. As new signatories are added on a rolling basis, it will be updated periodically to reflect the new count as well as the additional organisations that have signed on. As of 17 June 2022, the new total is 99 signatories.

1 Former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, reaffirms that: “encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age”.