ePrivacy Exception Proposed

Late last month, a broad exception to the EU’s privacy regulations became effective.

My apologies. The first version of this post erroneously asserted the derogation to the ePrivacy Directive had been enacted. It has not, and this post has been re-titled and updated to reflect this fact.

As the European Union (EU) continues to work on enacting a modernized ePrivacy Directive (Directive 2002/58/EC) to complement the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it proposed an exemption to manage a change in another EU law to sweep “number-independent interpersonal communications services” into the current regulatory structure of electronics communication. The policy justification for allowing a categorical exemption to the ePrivacy Directive is for combatting child sexual abuse online. This derogation of EU law is limited to at most five years and quite possibly less time if the EU can enact a successor to the ePrivacy Directive, an ePrivacy Regulation. However, it is unclear when this derogation will be agreed upon and enacted.

In September 2020, the European Commission (EC) issued “a Proposal for a Regulation on a temporary derogation from certain provisions of the ePrivacy Directive 2002/58/EC as regards the use of technologies by number-independent interpersonal communicationsservice providers for the processing of personal and other data for the purpose of combatting child sexual abuse online.” The final regulation took effect on 21 December 2020. However, the EC has also issued a draft of compromise ePrivacy Regulation, the results of extensive communications. The GDPR was enacted with an update of the ePrivacy Directive in mind.

In early December, an EU Parliament committee approved the proposed derogation but the full Parliament has not yet acted upon the measure. The Parliament needs to reach agreement with the Presidency of the Council and the European Commission. In its press release, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs explained:

The proposed regulation will provide for limited and temporary changes to the rules governing the privacy of electronic communications so that over the top (“OTT”) communication interpersonal services, such as web messaging, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), chat and web-based email services, can continue to detect, report and remove child sexual abuse online on a voluntary basis.

Article 1 sets out the scope and aim of the temporary regulation:

This Regulation lays down temporary and strictly limited rules derogating from certain obligations laid down in Directive 2002/58/EC, with the sole objective of enabling providers of number-independent interpersonal communications services to continue the use of technologies for the processing of personal and other data to the extent necessary to detect and report child sexual abuse online and remove child sexual abuse material on their services.

The EC explained the legal and policy background for the exemption to the ePrivacy Directive:

  • On 21 December 2020, with the entry into application of the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC), the definition of electronic communications services will be replaced by a new definition, which includes number-independent interpersonal communications services. From that date on, these services will, therefore, be covered by the ePrivacy Directive, which relies on the definition of the EECC. This change concerns communications services like webmail messaging services and internet telephony.
  • Certain providers of number-independent interpersonal communications services are already using specific technologies to detect child sexual abuse on their services and report it to law enforcement authorities and to organisations acting in the public interest against child sexual abuse, and/or to remove child sexual abuse material. These organisations refer to national hotlines for reporting child sexual abuse material, as well as organisations whose purpose is to reduce child sexual exploitation, and prevent child victimisation, located both within the EU and in third countries.
  • Child sexual abuse is a particularly serious crime that has wide-ranging and serious life-long consequences for victims. In hurting children, these crimes also cause significant and long- term social harm. The fight against child sexual abuse is a priority for the EU. On 24 July 2020, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse, which aims to provide an effective response, at EU level, to the crime of child sexual abuse. The Commission announced that it will propose the necessary legislation to tackle child sexual abuse online effectively including by requiring relevant online services providers to detect known child sexual abuse material and oblige them to report that material to public authorities by the second quarter of 2021. The announced legislation will be intended to replace this Regulation, by putting in place mandatory measures to detect and report child sexual abuse, in order to bring more clarity and certainty to the work of both law enforcement and relevant actors in the private sector to tackle online abuse, while ensuring respect of the fundamental rights of the users, including in particular the right to freedom of expression and opinion, protection of personal data and privacy, and providing for mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency.

The EC baldly asserts the problem of child online sexual abuse justifies a loophole to the broad prohibition on violating the privacy of EU persons. The EC did note that the fight against this sort of crime is a political priority for the EC, one that ostensibly puts the EU close to the views of the Five Eyes nations that have been pressuring technology companies to end the practice of making apps and hardware encrypted by default.

The EC explained:

The present proposal therefore presents a narrow and targeted legislative interim solution with the sole objective of creating a temporary and strictly limited derogation from the applicability of Articles 5(1) and 6 of the ePrivacy Directive, which protect the confidentiality of communications and traffic data. This proposal respects the fundamental rights, including the rights to privacy and protection of personal data, while enabling providers of number-independent interpersonal communications services to continue using specific technologies and continue their current activities to the extent necessary to detect and report child sexual abuse online and remove child sexual abuse material on their services, pending the adoption of the announced long- term legislation. Voluntary efforts to detect solicitation of children for sexual purposes (“grooming”) also must be limited to the use of existing, state-of-the-art technology that corresponds to the safeguards set out. This Regulation should cease to apply in December 2025.

The EC added “[i]n case the announced long-term legislation is adopted and enters into force prior to this date, that legislation should repeal the present Regulation.”

In November, the European Data Protections Supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiorówski published his opinion on the temporary, limited derogation from the EU’s regulation on electronics communication and privacy. Wiewiorówski cautioned that a short-term exception, however well-intended, would lead to future loopholes that would ultimately undermine the purpose of the legislation. Moreover, Wiewiorówski found that the derogation was not sufficiently specific guidance and safeguards and is not proportional. Wiewiorówski argued:

  • In particular, he notes that the measures envisaged by the Proposal would constitute an interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and data protection of all users of very popular electronic communications services, such as instant messaging platforms and applications. Confidentiality of communications is a cornerstone of the fundamental rights to respect for private and family life. Even voluntary measures by private companies constitute an interference with these rights when the measures involve the monitoring and analysis of the content of communications and processing of personal data.
  • The EDPS wishes to underline that the issues at stake are not specific to the fight against child abuse but to any initiative aiming at collaboration of the private sector for law enforcement purposes. If adopted, the Proposal, will inevitably serve as a precedent for future legislation in this field. The EDPS therefore considers it essential that the Proposal is not adopted, even in the form a temporary derogation, until all the necessary safeguards set out in this Opinion are integrated.
  • In particular, in the interest of legal certainty, the EDPS considers that it is necessary to clarify whether the Proposal itself is intended to provide a legal basis for the processing within the meaning of the GDPR, or not. If not, the EDPS recommends clarifying explicitly in the Proposal which legal basis under the GDPR would be applicable in this particular case.
  • In this regard, the EDPS stresses that guidance by data protection authorities cannot substitute compliance with the requirement of legality. It is insufficient to provide that the temporary derogation is “without prejudice” to the GDPR and to mandate prior consultation of data protection authorities. The co-legislature must take its responsibility and ensure that the proposed derogation complies with the requirements of Article 15(1), as interpreted by the CJEU.
  • In order to satisfy the requirement of proportionality, the legislation must lay down clear and precise rules governing the scope and application of the measures in question and imposing minimum safeguards, so that the persons whose personal data is affected have sufficient guarantees that data will be effectively protected against the risk of abuse.
  • Finally, the EDPS is of the view that the five-year period as proposed does not appear proportional given the absence of (a) a prior demonstration of the proportionality of the envisaged measure and (b) the inclusion of sufficient safeguards within the text of the legislation. He considers that the validity of any transitional measure should not exceed 2 years.

The Five Eyes nations (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) issued a joint statement in which their ministers called for quick action.

In this statement, we highlight how from 21 December 2020, the ePrivacy Directive, applied without derogation, will make it easier for children to be sexually exploited and abused without detection – and how the ePrivacy Directive could make it impossible both for providers of internet communications services, and for law enforcement, to investigate and prevent such exploitation and abuse. It is accordingly essential that the European Union adopt urgently the derogation to the ePrivacy Directive as proposed by the European Commission in order for the essential work carried out by service providers to shield endangered children in Europe and around the world to continue.

Without decisive action, from 21 December 2020 internet-based messaging services and e-mail services captured by the European Electronic Communications Code’s (EECC) new, broader definition of ‘electronic communications services’ are covered by the ePrivacy Directive. The providers of electronic communications services must comply with the obligation to respect the confidentiality of communications and the conditions for processing communications data in accordance with the ePrivacy Directive. In the absence of any relevant national measures made under Article 15 of that Directive, this will have the effect of making it illegal for service providers operating within the EU to use their current tools to protect children, with the impact on victims felt worldwide.

As mentioned, this derogation comes at a time when the EC and the EU nations are trying to finalize and enact an ePrivacy Regulation. In the original 2017 proposal, the EC stated:

The ePrivacy Directive ensures the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, in particular the respect for private life, confidentiality of communications and the protection of personal data in the electronic communications sector. It also guarantees the free movement of electronic communications data, equipment and services in the Union.

The ePrivacy Regulation is intended to work in concert with the GDPR, and the draft 2020 regulation contains the following passages explaining the intended interplay of the two regulatory schemes:

  • Regulation (EU) 2016/679 regulates the protection of personal data. This Regulation protects in addition the respect for private life and communications. The provisions of this Regulation particularise and complement the general rules on the protection of personal data laid down in Regulation (EU) 2016/679. This Regulation therefore does not lower the level of protection enjoyed by natural persons under Regulation (EU) 2016/679. The provisions particularise Regulation (EU) 2016/679 as regards personal data by translating its principles into specific rules. If no specific rules are established in this Regulation, Regulation (EU) 2016/679 should apply to any processing of data that qualify as personal data. The provisions complement Regulation (EU) 2016/679 by setting forth rules regarding subject matters that are not within the scope of Regulation (EU) 2016/679, such as the protection of the rights of end-users who are legal persons. Processing of electronic communications data by providers of electronic communications services and networks should only be permitted in accordance with this Regulation. This Regulation does not impose any obligations on the end-user End-users who are legal persons may have rights conferred by Regulation (EU) 2016/679 to the extent specifically required by this Regulation
  • While the principles and main provisions of Directive 2002/58/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council remain generally sound, that Directive has not fully kept pace with the evolution of technological and market reality, resulting in an inconsistent or insufficient effective protection of privacy and confidentiality in relation to electronic communications. Those developments include the entrance on the market of electronic communications services that from a consumer perspective are substitutable to traditional services, but do not have to comply with the same set of rules. Another development concerns new techniques that allow for tracking of online behaviour of end-users, which are not covered by Directive 2002/58/EC. Directive 2002/58/EC should therefore be repealed and replaced by this Regulation.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Photo by Guillaume Périgois on Unsplash

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