freedom of expression

Wikimedia France: new anti-terrorist bill exposes users to mass surveillance

Remember when we learned that Wikipedia was a target of widespread NSA surveillance? Wikimedia Foundation challenged the NSA program siphoning communications directly from the backbone of the Internet in the court. Today in France we may face a similar issue in the form of a new antiterrorist law that would add a grave threat to privacy to the censorship of the Terrorist Content Regulation. 

Protecting Wikipedia from mass surveillance

In May 2013 Edward Snowden revealed the existence of several American and British mass surveillance programs. The Wikimedia Foundation and other non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have filed a complaint against the NSA, accusing it of violating the first and fourth amendment of the American Constitution, and of having “exceeded the authority conferred on it by Congress”. 

As a result, on June 12th 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation announced the use of the HTTPS communication protocol for all Wikimedia traffic, with a view to countering the mass surveillance exercised by the NSA, which took advantage in particular of the inadequacies of the non-encrypted communication protocol. 

Now, over to France

The new proposed French anti-terrorism bill fits well in the mass surveillance trend, attacking fundamental rights of online users. Presented by the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, on April 28, it proposes a number of security measures inherited from the state of emergency of 2015 and the law of 2017 on internal security and the fight against terrorism. It also validates tools such as “black boxes”, responsible for detecting terrorist threats using user connection data, while expanding their use.

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Antiterrorists in a bike shed – policy and politics of the Terrorist Content Regulation

co-authored by Diego Naranjo, Head of Policy at EDRi

Analysis

In the second installment of series of longer features on our blog we analyse the political process around the terrorist content debates and key factors influencing the outcome.

The short story: an ill-fated law with dubious evidence base, targeting an important modern problem with poorly chosen measures, goes through an exhausting legislative process to be adopted without proper democratic scrutiny due to a procedural peculiarity. How did we manage to end up in this mess? And what does it tell us about the power of agenda setting the name of the “do something” doctrine?

How it started – how it’s going

A lot of bafflement accompanied the release of the Terrorist content regulation proposal. The European Commission published it a few days after the September 2018 deadline to implement the Directive on Combating Terrorism (2015/0625). It is still unclear what the rush was with the regulation if the preceding directive hadn’t got much traction. At that time, only a handful of Member States met the deadline for its implementation (and we don’t see a massive improvement in implementation across the EU to this day). Did it have to do with the bike-shed effect pervading modern policy-making in the EU? Is it easier to agree on sanitation of the internet done mostly by private corporate powers, than to meaningfully improve actions and processes addressing terrorist violence in the Member States?

Read More »Antiterrorists in a bike shed – policy and politics of the Terrorist Content Regulation

TERREG adopted without a final vote – what to expect and what it means

The Regulation on addressing the dissemination of terrorist content online (TERREG) has been adopted without a final vote thanks to a peculiarity in European Parliament procedure. The dangers of content filtering, over-policing of content by state and private actors, and the cross-border prerogatives for governments will now become law without a final stamp from the elected representatives of the European citizens.

What happened (and what didn’t)

A Plenary debate had been scheduled to discuss the draft legislation one last time. However, the voting list released for the Terrorist Content Regulation specified it would be approved without a final vote. A text that goes into so-called “second reading” – as the file in question was – is considered “approved without vote”, unless one of the political groups expressly requests a plenary vote. None of them did, so TERREG is considered as passed.

UPDATE: TERREG was published in the Official Journal of the EU on May 17th 2021. It enters into force 20 days from publication (June 7th 2021). It will apply from June 7th 2022.

On April 20th, LIBE  adopted what is now the final text with 52 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in favour of the draft legislation, including the Dutch MEP Sophia in ‘t Veld, a powerhouse in privacy and fundamental rights debates in the European Parliament. The 14 votes rejecting it came from members of the Greens with the TERREG Shadow Rapporteur Patrick Breyer at the helm, and the Left. 

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Dear MEPs, say NO to terrorist Content Regulation

We have the date of the final TERREG vote – it will happen during the Plenary of the European Parliament, on April 28. The MEPs will be presented with a regulation that is too blurry, too broad, and that infringes too much on our right to express political views and to access information. Together with EDRi, Access Now, Civil Liberties Union for Europe and over 60 other organisations, we urge the MEPs to stand on the right side of history and reject this proposal.

In the open letter, 60+ human rights organisations and journalist federations cite the danger of content filtering, the overpolicing of content by state and private actors, and the cross-border prerogatives as main reasons why the proposal should be rejected.

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TERREG: trilogue brings compromise in final weeks of German Presidency

Perhaps it was it the perspective of “losing face” by transferring this hot potato of a proposal to the next Presidency that created the pain point to press with the hosts of the negotiations. The European Parliament delegation managed to get quite a few of the issues they wanted ironed out and there will be no more trilogue on the proposal for the terrorist content regulation.

We bring you an update on what is the final outcome of the negotiations, what happens next, and a bit of a summary of what it means for us Wikimedians and for the world at large.

Successes and problems

1. Exception for journalists, artistic and educational purposes

Under pressure from the EP, journalist associations, and (hopefully) us, the doubtful legitimacy check of what is journalism, artistic expression or accepted research has been dropped. Article 1(2)(a) will exclude material disseminated for educational, journalistic, artistic or research purposes from the scope. Moreover, purposes of preventing or countering terrorism shall not be considered terrorist content including the content which represents an expression of polemic or controversial views in the course of public debate. Sounds like the most obvious obviousness, but hey – Twitch already deletes content denouncing terrorism to avoid the trouble. This provision plus those pointing at respecting fundamental rights while implementing measures can be interpreted in a way that actually coerces Twitch to stop deleting it.

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Upside-down: is all content terrorist until determined otherwise?

The German Presidency of the EU is accelerating the Trilogue negotiations around the terrorist content regulation (TERREG). Yet, faster doesn’t always mean better, as the German compromise text proves. The most disturbing ideas in the compromise pose an attack on freedom and pluralism of the media and of arts and sciences. Is the new text a lapse of judgment or a glimpse into how a modern EU government envisions its powers over democratic discourse and the role of tech in it?

Media and arts with the seal of approval of governments?

One of the issues with the proposal for a regulation to prevent the dissemination of terrorist content online was, from the beginning, a blurry definition of what constitutes “terrorist content”. The German Presidency proposes to exclude materials disseminated for educational, journalistic, artistic or research purposes from that definition under the condition that “the dissemination of the information is protected as legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and information, the freedom of the arts and sciences as well as the freedom and pluralism of the media”. 

This raises questions about what may or may not constitute “legitimate journalism” or “legitimate artistic expression.” And, importantly, about who gets to decide what is legitimate reporting or legitimate educational purpose. As the proposal stipulates so far, it will not be the court deciding, but competent authorities in each Member State and also the internet platforms hosting the content. 

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Terrorist clicks? drastic measures to moderate online communications under the anti-terrorist banner

What is the best way to combat terrorism? According to the European Commission, it is to clean the internet of terrorist content. Despite little clarity as to what terrorist content really is, the EU institutions are working towards a new regulation that would likely require a wide range of online services to follow the ill-designed measures – measures that would also affect Wikipedia. Yet, the lack of clear definitions, combined with proposed requirements to filter or immediately remove information, threatens democratic discourse and online collaboration.

What is this terrorist content regulation about, again?

In the autumn 2018, the European Commission (EC) published a proposal of a Regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online (TERREG) as a part of the Digital Single Market framework. Its framing suggests that curbing terrorism is not the main objective of this piece of legislation. Instead, it seeks to provide internet platforms with unified rules on how to deal with content that is considered terrorist, across the EU, and to outline consequences of their failing to comply. 

The rules boil down to a bypass of judiciary oversight in limiting freedom of expression, instead transfering that power to private actors: platforms hosting their users’ content, and content filters. All this makes it very easy to restrict access to information about unfolding civic events, which can sometimes produce violent imagery. Meanwhile, failure to remove disturbing, violent content upon notice is already punishable under the EU law and only 6% of European internet users report coming across what they perceive to be terrorist content (according to a Flash Eurobarometer poll from 2018). 

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4 things EU legislators can do to not break the internet (again)

co-authored by Jan Gerlach

The European Commission’s proposal for a Regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online runs the risk of repeating many of the mistakes written into the copyright directive, envisioning technological solutions to a complex problem that could bring significant damage to user rights. The proposal includes a number of prescriptive rules that will create frameworks for censorship and potentially harm important documentation about terrorism online. It would further enshrine the rule and power of private entities over people’s right to discuss their ideas.

However, there are still ways to shape this proposal to further its objectives and promote accountability. The report on the proposal will be up for a vote in the Civil Liberties and Justice Committee (LIBE) in the European Parliament on 8 April, and Wikimedia urges the committee to consider the following advice:

1. Stop treating the internet like one giant, private social media platform

Read More »4 things EU legislators can do to not break the internet (again)