June 15, 2010 | By Katitza Rodriguez

EU Search Engine Snooping Mandate Sneaked Into Child Protection Declaration

UPDATE: Written Declaration 29 was finally ">adopted by 371 members of the European Parliament. The Declaration's author backpedaled on data retention for search engines, with a disjointed explanation that it is possible to have limited — and simultaneously blanket — search engine surveillance. Unsurprisingly, members of Parliament are still confused. Stay tuned for more on the fate of data retention in Europe.

A controversial, surreptitious proposal to compel search engines to store everything that European citizens search for on the Internet has been introduced by a few members of the European Parliament. The veiled mandatory data retention proposal was sneaked into a broader declaration called "Written Declaration 29," which ostensibly seeks to promote the protection of children by developing an early warning system (EWS) to fight against pedophiles and sex offenders. But hidden within the text of the Declaration is obscure language mandating the storing of searches on a massive scale:

Ask the [European] Council and the [European] Commission to implement Directive 2006/24/EC and extend it to search engines in order to tackle online child pornography and sex offending rapidly and effectively.

The Directive 2006/24/EC, more widely known as the European Data Retention Directive, is an unpopular framework that compels telecommunications service providers operating in Europe to store all communications traffic data between six months and up to 2 years, for possible use by law enforcement. European Privacy officials had previously stated that "search queries themselves would be considered content rather than traffic data and the Directive would therefore not justify their retention." But in spite of that advice, Written Declaration 29 seeks to extend data retention to search engines.

The campaign promoting Written Declaration 29 focuses only on the goal of protecting children online, and is otherwise silent on the extension of the Data Retention Directive to search engines. The successful hiding of this controversial provision is likely what led 324 European Parliamentarians to sign the Declaration, coming close to the member signatures that it would take for the Written Declaration to be adopted. Once adopted, members of the European Parliament can use written declarations to launch or relaunch a debate on a subject that comes within the EU’s remit.

But when Cecilia Wikström, a member of the European Parliament, learned that the Declaration, in fact, seeks to violate EU citizens' search privacy by extending the Data Retention Directive to search engines; she publicly withdrew her support, and boldly spoke out against the proposal, seeking to clarify any possible misunderstandings for her colleagues:

Both of the two e-mails sent to [Members of the European Parliament] focused on the early warning system and neither mentioned the Data Retention Directive. The website set up to support the written declaration also does not mention Data Retention, at least not in an obvious way. Even the written declaration itself does not mention the Directive by name, but only refers to its reference number.

Parliamentarian Wikström also said:

The Written Declaration is supposed to be about an early-warning system for the protection of children. Long-term storage of citizens’ data has clearly nothing to do with 'early warning' for any purpose. The 'data preservation' system established by the Council of Europe Cybercrime Convention was designed specifically for cases requiring urgent preservation of data in relation to ongoing investigations.

Written Declaration 29 is well-intended, however, the blanket surveillance proposal completely undermines the campaign to protect children. No measures should be implemented that cause damage to other human rights. If you live in the EU and want to help prevent search engine surveillance, visit the AKVorrat campaign page for instructions on how to contact your member of the European Parliament.


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