Nine countries unite against EU export controls on surveillance software

A group of nine EU countries is pushing back against a proposal to create export controls on technology products that be used for surveillance purposes. [Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE / An EU proposal to impose export controls on technology products that can be used as spyware is at risk of being delayed as a group of nine countries have pushed back against the overhaul.

EU officials are concerned that a bill to regulate the export of so-called dual use products could be toppled ahead of next year’s European Parliament election. Dual use products can be used for either civilian or military purposes and fall under special export controls.

Nine countries, led by Sweden, have united against the proposal’s clampdown on exports of technology products that could be used to harm human rights.

Sweden, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom drafted a paper criticising the bill.

Diplomats from the nine countries warned that the proposal could lead to “portraying Europe as a technology-averse continent and an unlikely home for any global frontrunners on ICT or other technologies of the future generations” in a document that EURACTIV has obtained, which was circulated to all 28 member states on 15 May.

In 2016, the Commission proposed extending an existing EU export control law to cover technology products. The EU executive has billed the overhaul as its response to the Arab Spring, when European companies were caught selling surveillance software to governments that used it to spy on protesters.

New reports of such sales have continued to surface. In May, the NGO Access Now revealed that Turkey used software from the German firm FinFisher to monitor critics of the Turkish government.

But the future of the EU legislation is shaky.

Officials close to the negotiations said that Sweden was the driving force behind the document. A spokeswoman for the Swedish representation to the EU declined to comment on the initiative.

The document cautioned against moving ahead with new EU controls on exports that are not coordinated with major trading partners outside the bloc, including the United States.

“Controls on EU exports without parallel measures in the other major economies would serve only to push the development and production of relevant technologies outside of the EU,” the paper said.

The group of nine countries argued that a list in the Commission’s proposal that specifies products that would fall under tighter export controls “could seriously undermine the competitiveness of EU-based industry”.

Under the Commission proposal, mobile telecommunication interception equipment, intrusion software, monitoring centers, data retention systems and digital forensics would all need special approval from national export authorities.

Eleven member states back EU controls on selling spyware

EXCLUSIVE / Eleven EU countries have signalled their support for draft rules that would place export restrictions on companies selling surveillance technologies, a leaked working paper shows.

The new document deals a blow to the Commission’s bid to broker an agreement on the file.

Other countries have previously expressed support for the legislation, but sources with knowledge of the negotiations said that the group opposing the bill is more outspoken.

In February, a coalition of 11 countries—Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain—circulated a separate document backing the Commission’s bid to create “effective EU cyber-surveillance controls for the protection of human rights”.

Sources involved in the talks are worried that the opposing countries’ campaign against the legislation will mean that the file might not be approved before the May 2019 EU election. They are concerned that a new administration in the Commission and freshly elected MEPs could take a different approach to the bill.

The Parliament approved its version of the dual use legislation in January. But negotiations are stuck in limbo. The legislation can only go into effect after MEPs, national governments and the Commission strike a compromise on the bill.

MEPs are concerned that their work will go to waste if diplomats don’t speed up discussions.

Two of the lead legislators on the proposal sent a letter on 30 May to the Bulgarian and Austrian ambassadors in Brussels, urging them to wrap up talks between national diplomats and start negotiating with the Parliament by autumn.

Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of the Council and chairs legal negotiations between national diplomats. Austria will take over that role in July.

“We should not risk to delay for years the modernisation of the current EU export control regime, while technology develops rapidly and threats to democracy and human rights are globally on the rise,” German Green MEP Klaus Buchner, who led the Parliament’s work on the file, and German Socialist Bernd Lange wrote in the letter.

Chances for a quick breakthrough appear small. Talks between national governments have moved slowly since the nine countries circulated their opinion paper.

A spokeswoman for the Bulgarian Council presidency said, “It has to be noted that rather complex elements are involved in the proposal that need careful examination. Based on the good work under the Estonian Presidency, the Bulgarian Presidency continued the work on this file. The respective working party has examined the text in a number of meetings. While some progress has been achieved it’s not yet possible to commit to any specific target date for the Council’s position or General Approach”.

MEPs approve export controls tailored to stop government surveillance

MEPs approved stricter rules on Wednesday (17 January) to control how European companies export technologies including software that could be used for surveillance, and any products that may violate human rights.

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