On 14th November, Members of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties committee voted against attempts from EU Home Affairs officials to roll out mass scanning of private and encrypted messages across Europe. It was a clear-cut vote, with a significant
majority of MEPs supporting the proposed position.
A political deal struck by the Parliament's seven political groups at the end of October meant that this outcome was expected. Nevertheless, this is an important and welcome
milestone, as Parliamentarians demand that EU laws are based in objective evidence, scientific reality and with respect for human rights law.
This vote signals major improvements compared to the Commission's original draft law
(coined Chat Control'), which has courted controversy. The process around the legislation has faced allegations of conflicts of interest and illegal advert micro-targeting, and rulings of "maladministration". The proposal has also been widely
criticised for failing to meet EU requirements of proportionality -- with lawyers for the EU member states making the unprecedented critique that the proposal likely violates the essence of the right to privacy.
In particular, the
vote shows the strong political will of the Parliament to remove the most dangerous parts of this law -- mass scanning, undermining digital security and mandating widespread age verification. Parliamentarians have recognised that no matter how important
the aim of a law, it must be pursued using only lawful and legitimate measures.
At the same time, there are parts of their position which still concern us, and which would need to be addressed if any final law were to be
acceptable from a digital rights point of view. Coupled with mass surveillance plans from the Council of member states and attempts from the Commission to manipulate the process, we remain sceptical about the chances of a good final outcome.
Civil liberties MEPs also voted for this position to become the official position of the European Parliament. On 20 th November, the rest of the house will be notified about the intention to permit negotiators to move forward without
an additional vote. Only after that point will the position voted on today be confirmed as the European Parliament's mandate for the CSA Regulation.
Mass scanning (detection orders)
Parliament's position firmly rejects the premise that in order to search for child sexual abuse material (CSAM), all people's messages may be scanned (Articles 7-11). Instead, MEPs require that specific suspicion must be required -- a similar principle
to warrants. This is a vital change which would resolve one of the most notorious parts of the law. The position also introduces judicial oversight of hash lists (Article 44.3), which we welcome. However, it unfortunately does not distinguish between
basic hashing (which is generally seen as more robust) and perceptual hashing (which is less reliable).
At the same time, the wording also needs improvement to ensure legal certainty. The Parliament position rightly confirms that
scanning must be "targeted and specified and limited to individual users, [or] a specific group of users" (Article 7.1). This means that there must be "reasonable grounds of suspicion a link [...] with child sexual abuse material"
(Articles 7.1. and 7.2.(a)). However, despite attempts in Recital (21) to interpret the "specific group of users" narrowly, we are concerned that the phrasing "as subscribers to a specific channel of communications"(Article 7.1.) is
too broad and too open to interpretation. he concept of "an indirect link" is also ambiguous in the context of private messages, and should be deleted or clarified.
The Parliament's position deletes solicitation
(grooming) detection from the scope of detection orders, recognising the unreliability of such tools. However, the fact that solicitation remains in the scope of risk assessment (Articles 3 and 4) still poses a risk of incentivising overly-restrictive
The European Parliament's position states that end-to-end encrypted private message services -- like WhatsApp, Signal or ProtonMail -- are not subject to scanning
technologies (Articles 7.1 and 10.3). This is a strong and clear protection to stop encrypted message services from being weakened in a way that could harm everyone that relies on them -- a key demand of civil society and technologists.
Several other provisions throughout the text, such as a horizontal protection of encrypted services (Article 1.3a and Recital 9a), give further confirmation of the Parliament's will to protect one of the only ways we all have to keep
our digital information safe.
There is a potential (likely unintended) loophole in the Parliament's position on end-to-end encryption, however, which must be addressed in future negotiations. This is the fact that whilst encrypted
'interpersonal communications services (private messages) are protected, there is not an explicit protecting for other kinds of encrypted services ('hosting services').
It would therefore be important to amend Article 1.3a. to
ensure that hosting providers, such as of personal cloud backups, cannot be required to circumvent the security and confidentiality of their services with methods that are designed to access encrypted information, and that Article 7.1. is amended so that
it is not limited to interpersonal communications.
Age verification & other risk mitigation measures
The European Parliament's position is mixed when it comes to age verification and other risk
mitigation measures. EDRi has been clear that mandatory age verification at EU level would be very risky -- and we are glad to see that these concerns have been acted upon. The European Parliament's position protects people's anonymity online by removing
mandatory age verification for private message services and app stores, and adds a series of strong safeguards for its optional use (Article 4.3.a.(a)-(k)). This is a positive and important set of measures.
On the other hand, we
are disappointed that the Parliament's position makes age verification mandatory for porn platforms (Article 4a.) -- a step that is not coherent with the overall intention of the law. What's more, the cumulative nature of the risk mitigation measures for
services directly targeting children in the Parliament's position (Article 4.1.(aa)) need further attention.
This is because there is no exception given for cases where the measures might not be right for a particular service, and
could instead risk platforms or services deciding to exclude young people from their services to avoid these requirements.
We recommend that there should not be mandatory age verification for porn platforms, and that risk
mitigation measures should oblige providers to achieve a specific outcome, rather than creating overly-detailed (and sometimes misguided) service design requirements. We also warn that the overall CSA Regulation framework should not incentivise the use
of age verification tools.
The European Parliament's position does not include a permanent voluntary scanning regime, despite some MEPs calling for such an addition. This is an
important legal point: if co-legislators agree that targeted scanning measures are a necessary and proportionate limitation on people's fundamental human rights, then they cannot leave such measures to the discretion of private entities. The Parliament's
position does -- however, extend the currently-in-force interim derogation by nine months (Article 88.2).