Smile, the EU is watching you
EU officials are pushing through a directive that would give them unprecedented access to our online search histories.
While the Lib-Con government has pledged to ‘roll back the database state’ in the UK, the European Union’s impulse for generating databases appears to be growing. Ironically, at the same time as the UK coalition’s proposed ‘great repeal bill’ completes its journey through parliament, Nick Clegg and David Cameron could be mandated to integrate into British law a directive based on the particularly insidious EU Written Declaration 29.
The marketing campaign for the directive, aimed at members of the European Parliament (MEPs), draws straight from the text book of emotional manipulation beloved of Christian Aid, Barnados and others. The campaign features a photo of a distressed child staring wide-eyed at the camera, with her mouth torn away to signify that she doesn’t have a voice. The caption says: ‘Stop sexual harassment. Stop paedophillia. Stop child pornography. Sign the Written Declaration 29 today!’
The accompanying letter by Italian MEP Tiziana Motti, who submitted the declaration to MEPs, uses equally emotive language: ‘Any act of violence suffered by a woman or a child is an indelible defeat of the rules of civilised coexistence. We would therefore be very grateful if, as many other colleagues have already done, you could support this important Written Declaration No 29, “On setting up a European early warning system (EWS) for paedophiles and sex offenders”... in order to defend the weaker members of society and protect the rights of all.’
Even the address of the website – smile29.eu - is designed to tug at our heartstrings. How could such a campaign gain anything but universal support from MEPs? Well, if they had actually read Written Declaration 29 carefully, then they might at least have paused for thought. Indeed, some MEPs who were initially moved to sign the declaration have now retracted their support after taking the time to look in detail at what the proposed directive would entail. Still, in under two months, the proposal has gained the support of 324 MEPs. With another four months to go before the declaration expires, this means it is dangerously close to getting the 369 signatories required for it to pass.
The declaration wrestles with the fact that ‘the internet… allows paedophiles and sex offenders to enjoy freedom of action, putting them on the same footing as honest citizens and making it difficult for the authorities to trace them’. How, then, to separate these malicious individuals from honest citizens? The declaration’s answer is to implement fully the 2006 Data Retention Directive and extend it to search engines. The Data Retention Directive, in force to varying degrees across Europe, requires telephone operators and internet service providers to retain data such as the calling number, the user ID and the identity of a user of an IP address. The planned extension would mean that web search providers, including Google, would have to store the content of all searches made anywhere in the EU, alongside the identity of those doing the searching.
For anyone wondering why they should be concerned, take a cursory glance at a day’s worth of the Google searches in your browser history. Many searches are banal, yes, but taken together our searches can act as an unprecedented window into what’s on our mind: from what our hobbies are to what we are working on or are curious about at a particular point in time. Indeed, this new window into our lives has been of considerable concern to some EU officials who have been lobbying for Google – and other search engine providers – to reduce the amount of time they keep our personal data for. As a result of this lobbying, Google has already reduced the length of time it stores EU data from two years to nine months.
Written Declaration 29 would effectively treat us all as potential paedophiles and sex offenders. We would not be innocent until proven guilty; instead, we would be subject to investigation every time we typed in a search term. It is easier to put faith in Google’s motto ‘don’t be evil’ than it is to stomach EU bureaucrats poring over every search we make to monitor whether we are evil.
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There are many obstacles in the way of Written Declaration 29: Christian Engström, the Swedish Pirate Party MEP, is leading a campaign to raise awareness about the intentions of the directive, which has already led to embarrassed MEPs, such as Swedish MEP Cecilia Wikström, recognising that they were suckered by the soft marketing campaign and retracting their support.
And even if the declaration is adopted, serious questions have been raised about its compatibility with existing data protection laws. Individual member states can choose the methods and form by which they implement directives, which could give the Lib-Con government scope to kick it into the long grass. (Although it should be noted they have only vaguely promised to ‘end the storage of internet and email records without good reason’, and have not yet defined what these ‘good reasons’ might be.)
Furthermore, it is not clear how easy it would be to analyse such vast quantities of information. Far from being an ‘early warning system’, the directive is likely only to provide evidence to support a successful prosecution after an alleged paedophile has already been identified. And, as many have pointed out, studies of the behaviour of paedophiles online suggest that the vast majority of their activity takes place ‘underground’, in private chatrooms or on the unregulated ‘dark nets’.
To dismiss the potency of the directive on these grounds, however, would be a mistake. This is not, after all, about sorting the paedophiles and abusers from those of us who are ‘honest citizens’. Instead, the directive is a warning: ‘We are watching you. Be honest citizens… or else!’ Although it would be naive to assume even now that anything we do online is truly private, an analysis of a log of our Google searches still could, in many ways, be more revealing of our innermost thoughts, desires and curiosities than even our private diaries. The directive would serve as an effective panopticon: at any point our searches, present and past, could be monitored for suspicious behaviour and we could become subject to investigation.
Through manipulating fear of paedophilia, by imploring us to ‘think of the children’, EU officials are attempting to open up a window into our minds. We should all ensure that ‘access is denied’.
Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.