EU told to protect Snowden as privacy fears continue

MEPs have called for EU states to protect Edward Snowden and on the EC to do more to protect the fundamental rights of citizens

The European Parliament has called on European Union (EU) member states to protect whistleblower Edward Snowden and expressed concerns that EU citizens' rights are still in danger.

Too little has been done to safeguard citizens' fundamental rights following revelations of electronic mass surveillance by Snowden, according to MEPs in a non-binding resolution that urges the European Commission (EC) to ensure that all data transfers to the US are subject to an effective level of protection.

The resolution also asks member states to grant protection to Snowden as a "human rights defender" and raises concerns about surveillance laws in several EU countries.

The resolution, approved by 342 votes to 274, takes stock of the action taken by the EC, other EU institutions and member states on the recommendations set out by the European Parliament in its resolution of 12 March 2014 on the electronic mass surveillance of EU citizens, drawn up after Snowden's revelations.

By 285 votes to 281, MEPs decided to call on the EU member states to "drop any criminal charges against Snowden, grant him protection and consequently prevent extradition or rendition by third parties, in recognition of his status as whistleblower and international human rights defender".

Snowden has been living in Russia, where he was granted asylum after leaking top secret documents about surveillance. He's been charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, which provides for criminal penalties for any disclosure of state secrets and would not allow Snowden to argue that his revelations had a public benefit, according to the Guardian.

Internet freedom campaign Fight for the Future has welcomed the resolution, encouraging member states to drop all criminal charges against Snowden and protect him from extradition to the US.

"The battle over mass government surveillance is a decisive moment in the history of humanity, and it's hard to think of anyone who has done more than Edward Snowden to educate the public about the grave risks that runaway spying programs pose to our basic human rights, the future of the internet, and freedom of expression," the campaign group said in a statement.

Fight for the Future said the US government should be ashamed that it continues to criminalise Snowden and torture and imprison other whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning.

"We hope that this resolution leads to a binding agreement in the EU that allows Edward Snowden to move to whichever EU country he wants," the campaign group said.

Safe Harbour ruling

MEPs also welcomed the 6 October 2015 ruling by the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Max Schrems case, which invalidated the EC's decision on the Safe Harbour scheme for data transfers to the US.

"This ruling has confirmed the long-standing position of parliament regarding the lack of an adequate level of protection under this instrument," the resolution said.

"[Parliament calls on the EC to] immediately take the necessary measures to ensure that all personal data transferred to the US are subject to an effective level of protection that is essentially equivalent to that guaranteed in the EU".

The resolution asks the EC to reflect immediately on alternatives to Safe Harbour and on the "impact of the judgment on any other instruments for the transfer of personal data to the US, and to report on the matter by the end of 2015".

The resolution also reiterates the call for the suspension of the Terrorist Finance Tracking Programme (TFTP) agreement with the US.

In general, MEPs consider the commission's response so far to the European Parliament's 2014 resolution "highly inadequate" given the extent of the revelations of mass surveillance. "EU citizens' fundamental rights remain in danger" and "too little has been done to ensure their full protection", they said.

MEPs said they are concerned about "recent laws in some member states that extend surveillance capabilities of intelligence bodies", including in France, the UK and the Netherlands. They are also worried by revelations of mass surveillance of telecommunications and internet traffic inside the EU by the German foreign intelligence agency BND in co-operation with the US National Security Agency (NSA).

The resolution calls for an EU strategy for greater IT independence and online privacy, and emphasises the need to ensure "meaningful democratic oversight" of intelligence activities and to rebuild trust with the US.

"The European Parliament's inquiry into Edward Snowden's revelations of electronic mass surveillance was the most comprehensive investigation completed to date. This work needs to continue to ensure that civil liberties are defended on the internet too," said the UK's Claude Moraes, chair of the Civil Liberties Committee and rapporteur on mass surveillance.

Investigatory Powers Bill

The resolution comes a week before the UK government is expected to reveal details of its planned new surveillance legislation aimed at giving police and intelligence agencies the power to monitor online communications. 

Under the Investigatory Powers Bill expected to be introduced by home secretary Theresa May on 4 November 2015, reports say telecoms and internet service providers (ISPs) will be required to retain their customers' web browsing history for 12 months.

The proposed bill is expected to allow the police to seize details of the websites and access specific web addresses visited by anyone under investigation, but judicial approval will be required to access the content of the websites.

In June 2015, an independent report by David Anderson QC said any legislation that seeks to increase the surveillance powers of the police and intelligence services must include verification, clear limits and safeguards.

The government, IT industry trade body TechUK and civil liberties group Big Brother Watch welcomed the report – although the latter called for wider debate. 

In July 2105, another independent review called for a fresh start in the law for interception of communications in the UK, saying a new, democratic licence to operate is needed.

The report, entitled A democratic licence to operate and commissioned by former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, is based on investigation and consultation in the past year by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

The report, which has been presented to prime minister David Cameron, shows how a democracy can combine a high level of security with respect for privacy and freedom of speech.

The authors of the report have called on government, civil society and industry to accept the report's recommendations and work together to put them into practice.

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