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After Snowden Leaks, Is a Promise Enough to Protect Digital Rights in Europe? (updated)

BY Antonella Napolitano and Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 21 2014

In Europe, a coalition of privacy and civil rights groups, known as EDRi, is pushing to keep digital rights and privacy a hot button issue through a new online petitioning platform, WePromise, strategically using the political momentum of the EU's upcoming parliamentary elections: 28 EU countries are currently immersed in electoral campaigning and between May 22nd and 25th, citizens from all over Europe will elect 751 new (and old) Members of the European Parliament.

So it seems that EDRi's launch of WePromise in early February couldn't come at a better time. But is making promises enough?

MEPs have dealt increasingly with digital rights issues, most recently after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the US's surveillance activities also allegedly included spying on European prime ministers and EU institutions.

But Joe McNamee, EDRi's Executive Director, claims this is just the start of digital rights issues for the soon-to-be MEPs and that the next five years will be particularly active: “There will be an avalanche of important proposals landing on the desks of new Members of the European Parliament after the elections,” he writes.

EDRi is a group of 35 privacy and civil rights organizations from all over the EU. The WePromise platform is two-sided, aimed at engaging both parliamentary candidates and EU citizens. The candidates are encouraged to sign a ten point 'Charter of Digital Rights' that supports an open digital environment: promotion of transparency, data protection and privacy legislation, reform of copyright, and control of surveillance techniques are among the key points.

The other side of WePromise targets citizens, inviting them to sign a pledge to vote for candidates that have endorsed the Charter. In this way, politicians and citizens can "make a promise to each other," the website exhorts, even if such promises are not legally binding.

“Even if this [the pledge] is not binding, this is a big step forward. [...] We are working on tools for the MEPs, posters, badges. The idea is trying to create a sense of identity and belonging,” McNamee explained to techPresident. While so far the initiative has had some mentions in the press, the EDRi office is too small to organize physical gatherings and initiatives, McNamee noted.

Who's Participating? launched on February 6th. So far, 546 citizens have signed the Charter, while 38 candidates from 9 countries have joined the initiative

EDRi’s theory behind WePromise is this: the pledge of citizens can bring greater visibility to digital rights issues and therefore, pressure relevant candidates to support the WePromise charter as well.

It’s not a surprise to find in the list of candidates, those known for their commitment to digital rights, like Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake -- dubbed “Europe’s most wired politician” by the Wall Street Journal -- or members of various national chapters of the Pirate Party (all 8 candidates from Sweden and 4 out of 8 in Germany).

While one candidate from the German Social Democrats has joined the campaign in addition to two from the Green Party and one from the Left Party, so far there are no candidates from the conservative Christian Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, or the liberal free-market FDP. While none of the more established German parties have focused on net policy to the same degree as the Pirate Party, they have incorporated those issues as they relate to their broader policy issues. The Social Democrats, now in a coalition with Merkel's party, have generally put more emphasis on issues such as net neutrality, copyright reform and government pressure to expand broadband.

Merkel's government backed a controversial news licensing law, but it prompted criticism within her own party from net policy experts and younger members. The Green Party has most recently been especially outspoken in supporting Edward Snowden with calls to offer him asylum in Germany. The FDP has generally placed an emphasis on the issue of protecting civil liberties online. For the first time last week, the German parliament instituted a standing committee on the Internet and the digital agenda.

"Especially in the EU countries in which the Pirates will likely win some seats, the other parties, especially the larger ones, have an interest to take a stand on net policy issues in order to appeal to potential Pirate voters," Kirsten Fiedler, managing director at EDRI and a member of the German EDRi member organization online advocacy group Digital Society (Digitale Gesellschaft), wrote in an e-mail. "From a political perspective, the Pirates ought to be annoyed by our project... The Charter was crafted with a lot of care. There was an emphasis on making sure that the larger parties would be able to sign as well, in that the points are not too specific but also not devoid of meaning."

She explained that the outreach strategy for WePromise involves EDRi's member organizations contacting candidates in the various member countries. EDRI is also working on producing video statements about the WePromise effort that the candidates can use in their own political campaigns and will release them in the coming weeks.

Infographic by Europe Decides, an initiative launched by Burson-Marsteller Brussels (not affiliated with EU institutions)

Right now, somewhat disproportionately, the country with the most candidate pledges is Austria: nine candidates from four different parties joined, including several from the Social Democrats and NEOS, a liberal party.

“The Austrian organizations in our network have been particularly active,” McNamee told techPresident in a phone interview. He explained that several candidates were approached by Austrian NGOs and that others joined after learning that political rivals had done the same. “They created momentum,” he pointed out.

Andreas Krisch, head of an Austrian EDRi member group called the Organization of Austrian Internet Users, or VIBE!AT, wrote in an e-mail to techPresident that his group has been engaged in social media outreach while the parties are still finalizing their candidate lists and is planning more direct outreach to candidates in the future.

"I think that the revelations around the activities of international but also European intelligence services as well as the Europe-wide protests against ACTA have raised awareness to the point that also less Internet-savvy politicians have recognized the importance and significance of this topic area," he wrote. "For that reason we expect a higher participation in the WePromise campaign than would have been possible just one or two years ago. The current rate of participation seems to prove our assumptions somewhat right. Even though the initiative is only at the very beginning, this is a promising start."

One of the Austrian candidates who has signed up is Josef Weidenholzer, MEP for the Social Democratic Party of Austria and point person for net policy within the Austrian Social Democratic delegation.

In an e-mail, he praised the campaign, which he first heard about on Twitter, for helping to give greater prominence to net policy issues and digital basic rights as part of the European election campaign, applauding its straightforward and inviting presentation. "It represents a very good net policy summary of digital basic rights and illustrates what the digital agenda ought to be," he wrote. "With the campaign, the net policy community is also showing that it is operating at a high standard."

He wrote that there was a very high probability that a majority of Social Democratic candidates in Austria and other countries would support the pledge. Together with Hannes Swoboda, who is president of the transnational Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament and also a member of the Austrian Social Democratic delegation, Weidenholzer wrote that he would start an appeal to colleagues to support the campaign via social media and other public channels. "Whoever is not yet supporting the campaign hasn't been made aware of it yet," he wrote. "Its priorities corresponds to the issues that Social Democrats advocate for in the European Parliament...That ranges from the fight for net neutrality to the implementation of free and open software....It would be nice if the campaign's priorities find their way into the campaign platforms of the Social-Democratic parties in Europe."

"I would recommend to SPD candidates that they support the charter since it overlaps in many respects with the basic values of the SPD," Lars Klingbeil, net-policy spokesperson for the German Social Democrats and a member of the new parliamentary committee on the Internet and the digital agenda, wrote in an e-mail. He added that he wished net policy issues would play a bigger role in the EU election campaign given the degree to which decisionmaking in areas such as data privacy protection and net neutrality takes place on the EU-level. "With the new committee there is for the first time a stand-alone committee in the Bundestag addressing these issues. That is significant progress compared with the last legislative period. In this way the debate is now taking place in equal measure on the national and European level."

Digitalcourage, an EDRi member group based in Bielefeld, Germany, that is focused on online privacy rights, is optimistic about getting more support among German candidates. In an e-mail, Dennis Romberg, a spokesperson and organizer for the group, suggested that the dual aspect of the campaign with its effort to also encourage voter pledges would put pressure on candidates to support the charter. In addition to the video campaign effort, the group will also create flyers about the WePromise campaign to distribute during street campaigning efforts. "Since the campaign hasn't yet been running that long, we are very optimistic that there is still quite a bit more to come. Especially since the parties haven't yet ramped up their election campaigns," he wrote.

Will Promises Work With Voting Rules?

While there has been enthusiasm around the campaign, there may be a fairly significant problem for the platform. European affairs expert Jon Worth argues on his blog: “[...] the election system in many EU countries, where lists are closed, prevents pledges like this from really working."

Worth, who signed the pledge, points out that in several European countries, the voting system allows the voter to pick only the party, not the candidate. He points out, “If we were to look at this from the point of view of a party or an individual candidate on such a closed list, why would I actually want to sign?”

In other words, the pledge would commit the politicians with little to no advantage to their candidacies, therefore reducing the kind of pressure that WePromise wishes to put on a MEP hopeful.

After the Elections

A public affairs professional, McNamee has spent a good part of his professional career working on telecoms and Internet policy issues for major trade associations and corporations in their communications with the EU institutions.

When asked where the next digital rights battleground will be, McNamee answered: undoubtedly net neutrality. “Privacy, access, data protection, reform of copyright. Those issues are all tied to net neutrality," he explains. (created by VoteWatch) aims at informing young and first-time voters about key decisions taken by the European Parliament.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German MEP on the forefront when it comes to digital rights (he co-authored an amendment that sought to give asylum to Edward Snowden), also believes that net neutrality will be a key issue going forward. Albrecht told techPresident that he joined WePromise because he deeply believes in the Charter’s principles. When asked how many of his colleagues are knowledgeable about digital rights issues and their implications, he said that there are just a few of them, but the number is growing: “Politicians have to learn about this,” he said.

Weidenholzer pointed out that net policy issues had relevance for a variety of different groups within the electorate. He noted that the Internal Market Committee recently passed guidelines regarding the accessibility of websites for the elderly and people with disabilities, while the plenary meeting passed new guidelines to simplify music downloads across Europe, which is more of an issue for younger generations.

Weidenholzer added that it remains to be seen how important an issue net policy will be in the newly constituted EU Parliament, since the election will also determine the make-up of the European Commission. "Only then will it become clear in which direction Europe goes when it comes to net policy," he wrote.

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