EU Commission’s New Proposal Raises Privacy Red Flags

EU Flags lined up in a row outside the EU commission building in Brussels

Several prominent human rights groups have voiced concerns over certain rules in the European Commission’s latest proposal. According to them, the proposed rules would be disastrous for internet privacy around the globe.

The Commission is proposing new legislation to counter the spread of child sexual abuse material and stop suspected cases of child abuse on the internet. It will require internet services to track unlawful content and behavior on their platforms, even in private messages. This would mean that even services that offer end-to-end encryption would have to produce plain-text copies of their users’ conversations.

Child sexual abuse online remains a matter of grave importance and one that requires urgent action. However, the groups say the Commission’s proposal is excessive and would lead to an oppressive new surveillance system.

What Is the EU Commission’s Proposal?

Child sexual abuse online is a disturbing reality that reflects the harrowing side of the internet. It is also an extremely troubling issue to resolve, and one that governments around the world have been actively working on. In fact, in 2021 alone, 85 million photos and videos depicting child sexual abuse were reported globally.

As governments grapple with how to address this concerning issue, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, has put forth its recommendations. The Commission proposes to put the onus on companies that provide internet services to actively search for and report unlawful materials to an independent committee.

Currently, online platforms in the EU work within a voluntary framework to detect and report unlawful materials. The Commission says that this system has not worked and wants to shift to a mandatory one. This would mean that companies have to track all kinds of content and conversations on their platforms, including private communication — regardless of the level of encryption that they offer.

Privacy Concerns with the Commission’s Proposal

Human rights groups, such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), oppose the move to weaken encryption, fearing its effects on privacy. The group pointed out that this is not the first time law enforcement has attempted to create backdoors to encrypted communication platforms. It cited a similar demand by the intelligence alliance Five Eyes in October 2020.

The EFF described the Commission’s proposal as overbroad and not proportionate, adding that it will affect safety and privacy online. In fact, according to the EFF, weakening encryption could have the opposite effect on child safety, as abused minors need secure channels to report incidents.

Critics of the idea to create backdoors to online platforms argue that once encryption is weakened for any purpose, it opens up the possibility of misuse. While the Commission’s proposal stresses on maintaining strict privacy and security protections, the EFF does not think that will suffice.

“The scanning requirements are subject to safeguards, but they aren’t strong enough to prevent the privacy-intrusive actions that platforms will be required to undertake,” EFF’s statement reads.

Other groups, such as the European Digital Rights (EDRi), the Society for Civil Rights, Bits of Freedom, and epicenter.works have also voiced their opposition to the Commission’s proposal.

Proposals go Against GDPR’s Position on Privacy

The EFF pointed out that the Commission’s proposal goes against the EU’s general position on individual privacy, and also the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“The European Union prides itself on high standards for data protection and privacy, as demonstrated by the adoption of the GDPR. This new proposal suggests the EU may head in a dramatically different direction, giving up on privacy and instead seeking state-controlled scanning of all messages,” it stated.

The proposal will now go to the European Parliament and Council for approval. It will only become official if both bodies give it the go-ahead.

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Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.