Europol: Non-transparent cooperation with IT companies

By EDRi · May 18, 2016

Will the European Police Office’s (Europol’s) database soon include innocent people reported by Facebook or Twitter? The Europol Regulation, which has been approved on 11 May 2016, not only provides a comprehensive new framework for the police agency, but it also allows Europol to share data with private companies like Facebook and Twitter.

The history of Europol legislation

Europol supports Member States in more than 18 000 cross-border investigations a year. It started in 1993 as an intergovernmental Europol Drugs Unit (EDU) and became an international organisation with its own legal apparatus in 1995. A Council Decision from 2009 (371/JHA) established Europol as an EU agency. In March 2013, the European Commission proposed a reform of Europol via a draft regulation. After three years of work, the European Parliament approved the political compromise reached with the Council and the Commission on 11 May. The new Regulation will be applicable in May 2017.

What is Europol doing?

Europol serves as an information hub for law enforcement agencies of Member States and supports their actions in fighting against thirty types of “serious crimes”, including terrorism, organised crime, “immigrant smuggling”, “racism and xenophobia” and “computer crime”. Rather than focusing on specific areas of crime, the targets of Europol have now even been increased. For example, “sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, including child abuse material”, as well as “genocide and war crimes” are also included in the list.

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In all these areas, Europol’s main task is to “collect, store, process, analyse and exchange information” that it gathers from Member States, EU bodies and “from publicly available sources, including the internet and public data”.

Unlike its American equivalent, the FBI, Europol has no executive powers. It can only notify Member States of possible criminal offences in their jurisdiction, but not start an investigation on its own or arrest anybody. Thus, after notification, it is upon the Member State whether to investigate or not. If a Member State decides to take action, Europol shall provide support, which can also include participation in joint investigation teams.

The Internet Referral Unit

One of the controversial parts of the new Regulation is related to Europol’s EU Internet Referral Unit (IRU). The IRU has been operative since July 2015, and is part of the newly-founded European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC) at Europol. Among other tasks, the IRU monitors the internet looking for content that is “incompatible” with the terms of service of “online service providers” like Facebook, so they can “voluntarily consider” what to do with it. In other words, the IRU does not assess whether the content is illegal or not, and companies are not obliged to remove illegal content. They are “encouraged” to “voluntarily” do something with the referrals. The IRU has the power to create pressure to have apparently legal content deleted by companies, but bear no responsibility or accountability for doing so. How this complies with the EU Charter’s obligation that restrictions (on freedom of communication in this case) of fundamental rights must be “provided for by law” (rather than, for example, this kind of ad hoc, informal arrangement) is not obvious. Equally non-obvious is compliance with the requirement that such restrictions are “necessary and genuinely meet objectives of general interest”. If it was necessary to delete such content, then such content would (obviously?) be illegal, rather than just a possible breach of terms of service.

A document from the European Commission from April 2016 shows that the IRU has so far assessed over 4700 posts across 45 platforms and sent over 3200 referrals for internet companies to remove content, with an effective removal rate of 91%. This means that companies are receiving pressure to remove content that a public authority has assessed, not on the basis of the law, but on the basis of a private contract between a company and an internet user.

The whole procedure is non-transparent and is not subject to judicial oversight. In this sense, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) had recommended that Europol makes at least the list of its cooperation agreements with companies publicly available. However, this recommendation was not taken into account, and did not make it to the final text of the new Regulation.

Europol may receive and transfer personal data

Europol can also “receive” personal data, which is publicly available, from private parties like Facebook and Twitter directly. Before, this was only possible via a national police unit, assuming compliance with national law. Now a company has to declare that it is legally allowed to transfer that data and the transfer “concerns an individual and specific case”, while “no fundamental rights […] of the data subjects concerned override the public interest necessitating the transfer”. This has not been part of Europol’s rules before, and the Commission has to evaluate this practice after two years of implementation. At least until then, Europol can also feed this information into its databases on the internet.

While “Europol shall not contact private parties to retrieve personal data”, it will now be able to transfer information to private entities. The Regulation puts in place several measures to safeguard personal data protection. However, there are no transparency requirements to inform the public about any type of information exchange between Europol and companies. The Regulation only empowers a “Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group” to request documents. However, that remains rather unclear in the text, and will be governed by “working arrangements” between Europol and the Parliament. The accountability and respect for the rule of law in this deal is not clear.

Official Journal of the European Union: Text of the Europol Regulation adopted by the Council (11.03.2016) and the European Parliament (11.05.2016)

Police cooperation: MEPs approve new powers for Europol to fight terrorism (11.05.2016)

European Data Protection Supervisor, Executive Summary of the Opinion of the EDPS on the proposal for a Regulation on Europol (31.05.2013)

Communication from the Commission, delivering on the European Agenda on Security to fight against terrorism and pave the way towards an effective and genuine Security Union (20.04.2016)

(Contribution by Fabian Warislohner, EDRi intern)