MEPs vote for tougher measures to combat terrorism

Labour Party

MEPs will vote in Strasbourg this week to adopt new rules to give greater powers across all EU member states for authorities to tackle the growing threat of terrorism.

The new rules will be a decisive measure in the counter terrorism drive and support the work of the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol. The goal of the agency, as many may know, is to support member states in the fight against terrorism and serious organised and international crime.

As we have seen in the last year, the threat terrorist networks pose within the European Union is significant. Europol describes the threat as ‘resilient and able to quickly adapt to new opportunities.’

With this in mind its incumbent upon the European Parliament to respond to, and address the growing threat, and as legislators we are seeking to enhance the mandate of Europol so that it is fully equipped to respond even more swiftly to the rise of international criminal activity including terrorism.

The new measures will also give additional powers to existing units like the Internet Referral Unit, allowing such authorities to swiftly remove any content on websites which praise terrorist acts or encourage terrorists to join terrorist organisations.

In addition, social networking sites such as Facebook can be approached directly and asked to remove material that is used by terrorists. Europol will also be able to request details of other pages in an effort to stop the continuing spread of terrorist propaganda.

Another important area the new rules address is that of information sharing. The ability to share properly, transparently and swiftly information among member states is a significant benefit of our membership to the European Union which must not be underestimated.

While some people have raised concerns over data protection issues, the new measures address the concerns robustly by ensuring strict parliamentary scrutiny and safeguards are in place. Indeed the Civil Liberties Committee has been very clear. It stated: “MEPs have ensured that Europol’s new powers will go hand in hand with increased data protection safeguards and parliamentary scrutiny. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) will be responsible for monitoring Europol’s work and there will be a clear complaints procedure under EU law for citizens.”

And Europol’s work will be overseen by a Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group and will include members from both national parliaments and the European Parliament.

As the new measures address data protection issues robustly then we must respond in the toughest terms to the growing threat of terrorism, and without delay.

The rules will take effect from 1 April 2017.

Concern over State Control of the Media in Hungary

Labour Party

The newish right-wing government in Hungary is proving a real headache. Clearly not content with gaining two thirds of the vote (enough to guarantee constitutional change) in last April’s general election, the ruling Hungarian Civic Alliance or Fidesz Party now appears to be severely overreaching itself.

Like eastern European governments before, the current Hungarian administration under Viktor Orban is casting a distrustful eye over the country’s media and as a result the Hungarian Parliament has recently passed new media legislation.

However, this legislation appears far from benign. MEPs and other European organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have made representations along the following lines:

The new legislation undermines media pluralism in that the Hungarian Media Authority and Media Council, which are essentially part of the state apparatus, can sanction the content of all media

The Media Authority and Media Council are politically homogenous, led exclusively by members supported by the current governing party and the members were elected for a term of nine years

The legislation abolishes the political and financial independence of public service media as all heads of public service media were recently replaced by new directors all of whom were nominated by the governing party

These media laws can only be modified by a two-thirds majority on the Hungarian Parliament. In other words the media legislation could be on the statute books for a very long time.

The EU, which has competence over aspects of media policy through the Culture and Education Committee and Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes is rightly concerned about what is going on in relation to the media in Hungary. 

A joint meeting of the Culture and Education and Civil Liberties Committees yesterday debated Hungary’s new media law after hearing presentations from Mrs. Kroes and Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Justice Tibor Navracsics, who was questioned closely on the aspects of the legislation which require all media to register as such and provide “balanced” coverage of national and EU events.

Mrs. Kroes rightly chose a conciliatory approach saying, “We are looking very carefully at the provisions and will make a legal assessment of the law. We have been in contact with the Hungarian government in order to raise specific concerns”.  She added that the Commission is assessing the new law’s compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, and that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems, such as its apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries, the rules on media registration, unclear definitions and political control over the media authority.

Following a press conference this morning led by S&D Group President Martin Schulz, the Socialist and Democrat Group in the European Parliament has decided to wait for the Commission’s legal assessment before taking any further substantive action.

Although I believe both the Commission and the S&D Group are doing the right thing, there are clearly serious concerns about the way the Hungarian Government appears to be going after the media and seeking to diminish press and media freedom. If there is a case to answer the European Union must not shirk its responsibilities.

European Parliament acts against Child Abuse

Labour Party

This week the European Parliament Culture and Education (CULT) Committee’ voted on the European Commission draft directive “combating the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography” (repealing Framework Decision 2004/68/JHA).

This directive is intended to be a comprehensive look at child protection, ranging from ensuring that possession of child pornography is considered a serious offence across the European Union, to making sure that a registered sex offender in one member state cannot get a job working closely with children in another.

There is, of course, strong agreement about the appalling nature of child abuse on the internet and the need to tackle it across Europe. The internet knows no boundaries and therefore has to be viewed internationally.

Images of children being abused are not simply evidence of the abuse, but actually represent a further abuse of their rights every time that image is viewed or downloaded from the internet.  The police and internet service providers should be doing everything they can to stop people accessing illegal images and track down and prosecute the creators, publishers and the people downloading them.

Ideally, once such images are discovered, they would be deleted from their host server and investigated by the relevant police force.  This is indeed what happens in a lot of instances.  But there are difficulties sometimes in getting the images deleted because internet service providers in other countries aren’t necessarily going to be responsive when they are made aware that there is illegal content on their servers.  There is little if anything we can do at the moment to compel servers in third countries to remove illegal images. This means that though the authorities may be aware of abuse images, they cannot stop them from being viewed within their own territory.  So in effect they must stand by and allow images of child abuse to continue to be viewed and downloaded within their own country, hoping that the images will eventually be removed, which might never happen.

There has been an often heated debate in the CULT Committee about whether or not blocking of internet sites should be allowed to combat online sexual abuse images.  Blocking would allow a wall to go up around the site that contains illegal images.  This would mean an internet user within a country that utilises blocking technology would be unable to access the site and would be confronted with a warning message when they tried to access illegal material.

Blocking is not without its problems, but as a temporary or ‘last resort’ measure, when deletion is difficult or impossible, it can be effective.  There is an argument that says that it is too easy to circumvent the blocking.  I don’t buy this argument since it is difficult and I don’t believe most people would know how to do it.  Furthermore, there is strong evidence that blocking does stop people from being able to access illegal content.  The reason we have this evidence is because a number of countries already block illegal sites, including the UK where the main children’s charities strongly support blocking as one tool in the anti-child abuse armoury.

In 2009 BT announced that they estimated their blocking solution is preventing up to 40,000 attempts per day to access known child abuse web sites over their broadband network. Extrapolated across the whole of the UK broadband network this suggests that blocking is preventing up to 58 million attempts per year. Five months after blocking was launched in Denmark in 2006 the Danish police estimated that 238,000 users had attempted to reach known illegal child abuse images on the web. It was estimate that in Norway blocking was stopping between 10 and 12,000 attempts per day and in Sweden it was in the order of 20 – 30,000 per day. These are substantial numbers which give us an insight into the scale of offending which blocking addresses. The Danish police referred to the number of users, but the UK, Norwegian and Swedish numbers refer to attempts, many of which will be “bots” (bits of software that scour the internet) but even so each and every attempt whether by a human or an automated system represents a criminal act of some sort being prevented.

So it seems obvious that blocking can be an important tool in the fight against the distribution of child abuse images over the internet, and that is why the commission’s directive would make it mandatory for all member states to use it. 

In the very difficult process of negotiations that happened in the run up to our vote in CULT, Ms. Kammerevert removed mandatory blocking, making it non-mandatory and subject to strict regulations.  I’m not against having more safeguards in place to stop innocent sites being blocked, but to remove the mandatory element from the directive means that the situation in the EU does not substantively change.  Member states can already introduce blocking, the point is to make it an EU wide measure, to make sure everything that can be done is being done to stop child abuse images being available.

Never-the-less, non-mandatory blocking is what the Socialist and Democrat group on CULT wanted and, though I am the coordinator of the group, this is what they voted for.  I thank Perta for all her hard work on this opinion, but I do hope that in the subsequent stages of this directive’s passage through the parliament, blocking will be reintroduced as a mandatory action for member states.  The Civil Liberties committee is responsible for producing the main report and Angelili, the rapportuer, I know is in favour of blocking, so it remains a distinct possibility that the final report the parliament produces will contain it as a mandatory measure.