MEPs take Europe’s case for a digital bill of rights to Washington

On the left we should be clear that the struggle for civil liberties is now taking place in cyberspace.

Claude Moraes MEP is Labour MEP for London and European Parliament Rapporteur for the Inquiry into Electronic Mass Surveillance

The most recent NSA revelations that the full content of calls could be accessed was simply the latest in the long line of Edward Snowden revelations. But for Europe, the Snowden allegations and the Guardian campaign came at a critical time when the EU had already decided to overhaul its own outdated data protection, internet and privacy laws.

It sparked an intense period, where law makers made a set of rules to give EU citizens control of their personal data such as the ‘right to erasure’ and privacy, while ensuring there can be trust and growth in online commerce and social media and that we could upgrade the protections of data processed by police and judicial authorities.

A very tough balance to obtain, but one which most observers believe the European Parliament has achieved in its historic vote on 13 March in Strasbourg.

The inquiry into the Snowden allegations was widened to include a review of how citizens should be protected from mass surveillance unrelated to our security, while ensuring intelligence agencies continue to do the vital and valued job of protecting us against terrorist and cyber threats – essential to our security.

So what did the European Parliament inquiry find after six months of hearings, including testimony from Edward Snowden? (it also heard from intelligence and parliamentary scrutiny bodies from around the EU, whistleblowers, NGOs and journalists including Glenn Greenwald and Alan Rusbridger).

My report condemned mass surveillance programmes used by the US and EU member states where such meta data was not used for security purposes but could lead to serious violations of the law and privacy, including evidence used in secret courts. While the EU doesn’t have direct competence in relation to the national intelligence services of member states, the revelations mean that we need to call for stronger and modernised scrutiny arrangements.

In Brussels we heard evidence from congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the Patriot Act, who now feels the NSA must be reformed. In recent weeks both the UK Labour Party and Liberal Democrats have similarly called for an overhaul of our own oversight arrangements fit for this new era.

In essence both Labour and the Lib Dems have changed their policies to reflect new realities in this area. For Labour, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper set this out in a recent speech, and Ed Miliband did likewise in this year’s Hugo Young Lecture. This area is a tough one for domestic politics, but both parties have done the right thing.

However the EU does have direct competence in other areas, and the inquiry report comes with some strong recommendations.

For example, it understands how much commercial damage and breakdown of trust there has been as a result of the revelations. It also shed light on flaws in major commercial data-sharing arrangements such as the Safe Harbour agreement, which was supposed to safeguard data business flows from the EU to the US, but which we found to be unsafe and in need of reform fit for growing e-commerce. We call for its suspension.

In relation to the positive speech by President Obama before Christmas, we welcome the beginning of the informed, thoughtful debate that it sparked; but the part of the speech dealing with Europe requires that the EU and US adopt a data protection agreement that provides judicial redress for EU citizens if their data is illegally transferred to the US – the so-called umbrella agreement.

The European Parliament report has a host of recommendations, including a digital bill of rights or digital habeas corpus, increased international protections for journalists and whistleblowers, as well as proposals to strengthen EU cloud computing (but not to fence us off) and proposals on IT security and encryption standards.

There is a clear understanding from my report that there are both civil liberties implications as well as global business trust issues arising from the revelations, as well as a need to monitor standards long after the revelations may have faded. On the left we must be clear that the struggle for civil liberties is now firmly taking place in cyberspace.

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