Dereliction of Duty: how the Women’s Rights Committee failed Women in the Discussions on the ChatControl (CSAM) Regulation

The proposal to break end-to-end encryption in the CSAM regulation (ChatControl) puts everyone’s privacy at risk but is particularly harmful for women. As countries in the EU and elsewhere turn to digital surveillance to hunt down women who are seeking reproductive healthcare, I called on the Women’s rights committee of the European Parliament to speak out about the dangers of breaking end-to-end encryption, but the committee created to protect women’s rights refused to defend them.

Protecting Citizens’ rights to privacy, and women’s right to access reproductive healthcare have been two of my long-standing goals in the European Parliament, so when it was announced that the Women and Equality Committee would be preparing an opinion on the Chat Control regulation, I immediately jumped on the opportunity, and have been representing the Renew Europe group in negotiations in the Women and Equality Committee, but negotiations have been a bumpy ride to say the least.

A special guest

The negotiations began with a special (and unprecedented) guest: the architect of the regulation, Commissioner Johansson herself. An intervention of a Commissioner in a shadows meeting is extremely rare, even for the committee in charge of a law, but for a committee that is just providing an opinion, it is unheard of. The Commissioner took advantage of the opportunity to continue spreading mistruths about the regulation, despite them being debunked by multiple sources. Interpretation (translation) for the MEPs from the Greens (who oppose the regulation), and the Left, both of whom had requested it, was not provided.

This set the tone for two months of frustrating negotiations, in which the rapporteur, Hélene Fritzon (S&D), who is a member of the same party as Commissioner Johansson, pulled every string to drum up support for the Commissioner’s proposal, all while trying to avoid any discussions on how encryption will affect women’s rights.

The question of the scope

In Parliament, when a committee is given a law to work on, one of the first questions we ask is “what is the scope of our work”. Usually laws are distributed to committees on the basis of the topic they work on, but “Women’s rights and Equality” is an extremely wide topic. As soon as discussions began, we asked the rapporteur what the scope of our work should be, but got no answer.

That is, until the rapporteur published her proposed amendments, and told us that the scope of FEMMs work should be the articles she wants to change. We disagreed with the proposed scope, and asked for a debate on it. In response, it was put on the agenda of a technical meeting, where a lawyer from Parliament’s legal service highlighted the transversal nature of the work of the “Women’s rights and equality” committee, but did not indicate any legal limitations on the scope. Both Renew and the Greens requested a substantial discussion on each article, however the meeting ended before any real discussions could take place.

Criticism of the proposal grows from all sides

As this was ongoing, both the Parliament’s research service and the Council’s Legal service published their assessments on the proposal. Both found that the proposal was likely illegal, and highlighted the risks to end-to-end encryption, the ease for abusers to bypass scanning,  and numerous other problems with how the law was prepared and written. Both of these unanimous and damning assessments were politely but firmly ignored by many in Parliament, but I understood that many changes would be needed to make the proposal legal, let alone good.

Our proposed changes

Without a clear and agreed-upon scope, I decided to focus my work on issues that disproportionately affect women and girls, as well as the LGBTQI+ community.

I highlighted how using AI to scan for unknown CSAM could also detect nudes shared consensually between teenage couples, and how the stigma of sharing disproportionately affects girls. I underlined how scanning for grooming might be used in places like Hungary to enforce its “don’t say gay” rules which isolate LGBTQI+ children from any information about their sexuality.

I explained how we need to focus on the removal of CSAM rather than ineffective blocking so that victims can get real closure. Finally, I explained how breaking end-to-end encryption would have dramatically negative consequences for women seeking reproductive healthcare in Europe and beyond, highlighting the upcoming “pregnancy register” and surveillance laws in Poland.

Taking inspiration from the assessment written by Parliament’s research service, I proposed privacy-respecting solutions that empower children to identify and avoid risks online, while building digital literacy. I put an emphasis on education, prevention, and victim support rather than mass-surveillance. In addition to this, I threw my weight behind additional proposals put forward by the Greens, who were equally concerned about the fundamental rights impact of the proposal.

Self-censorship: how our Committee refused to speak out

Following the publication and presentation of amendments, the rapporteur (S&D) was clearly unhappy with our decision to table amendments outside of the areas she had decided. Without warning, the rapporteur’s team announced that there would be no political discussion on the scope and that she had submitted our amendments to the chair, Robert Biedroń (S&D), asking him to declare them inadmissible, on the grounds that they are “outside of the scope”. The next day, the committee’s secretariat sent a list of amendments – almost all of which were from Renew and the Greens – which were allegedly “out of scope”: everything on encryption, detection, and blocking of CSAM: in short, we had no right to an opinion on the most important parts of the legislation.

We protested, writing to the chair in a letter signed by MEPs from multiple political groups, highlighting the relevance of our amendments for Women’s rights.

We underlined that both the rapporteur, and the chair of the committee had previously signed a resolution in the European Parliament which highlighted the importance of end-to-end encryption in guaranteeing women’s access to reproductive healthcare. We provided detailed explanations of the relevance of our amendments, backed up with examples and sources. And yet, in spite of all this, the day after we provided this information, we received the final decision of the chair: the list was unchanged, and all of our amendments on the key issues of the regulation were struck down.

In short, our committee sees encryption as crucial in upholding the rights of US citizens’ access to healthcare, but we do not wish to enforce the same rights for EU citizens, nor will we act to protect the LGBTQI+ community who have already been victims of crass attacks by the far right in our debates on this topic. 

This law sets an unacceptable precedent that breaking end-to-end encryption is okay. But we can see it is not: the creation of a “pregnancy register” and the upcoming and highly controversial surveillance bill in Poland all show that it is not a question of if this precedent will be abused, but when given these circumstances, our refusal to speak up on this issue constitutes a dereliction of duty by our committee: we are failing the very people our committee was founded to protect.

Not only have we left it up to other committees to protect women’s rights from serious threats, we have also refused to even express our concern or warn them about these risks.  For now, I will keep fighting in FEMM and other committees to protect the rights of women and all citizens. I will continue to work with colleagues in the LIBE and IMCO committees to fix this proposal!

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