Money counts. Children don’t. And 163

From around 2009 various online platforms voluntarily started using smart technical tools to detect, delete and report actual or likely child sex abuse images and detect and address potential paedophile behaviour.

When the European Electronic Communications Code took effect on 20th December 2020, an unknown number of companies stopped doing it. This was an unintended consequence of parts of the Code becoming law.

In July 2020, a few months before the December deadline, having realised what was going to happen, the European Commission announced their intention to propose an “interim derogation” (temporary suspension) of the relevant clauses. In September they published a legislative proposal which would have achieved that.

Had the proposal been accepted, what everyone believed to be the  status quo ante would have been restored, without a blip or a hitch. There was a widespread expectation this would happen, rooted in the equally widespread belief that no substantial interest wanted to overturn or change the existing, longstanding arrangements.

How wrong we were. Nine months later reports of threats to children coming out of EU Member States have fallen by 51%.

Why?

Under the co-decision legislative processes of the EU all three elements – the Commission, Council of Ministers and  the European Parliament – have to agree a single text. The Council of Ministers substantially supported the Commission’s text. Not the Parliament.

The LIBE Committee had and still has lead responsibility for handling this matter on behalf of the European Parliament.

At a meeting of the LIBE Committee on 4th February, 2021 the Committee’s Rapporteur, Birgit Sippel of the German SPD, acknowledged (at 15:40) there was a procedure which would have allowed the process to be speeded up but she went on to say it is  “normally only used” for more technical matters and, if I understood her correctly, because it would have  entailed “giving away all the powers of political groups and individual MEPs” there was no support for it from other political groups on LIBE. Later Sippel spoke vigorously in defence of the “democratic hard work” of MEPs and about “not calling into question the legitimate rights and duty of this house to properly scrutinise  proposed legislation.”

We may never know why, at any point in the previous twelve years, Sippel or these same political parties failed to stir themselves sufficiently in relation to the very issues they suddenly said they were so concerned about. This makes the current, lamentable state of affairs look more like an opportunist power grab.

For LIBE the need to restore the status quo ante to preserve a child’s right to safety took second place to the (self-evidently) pick-and-choose rights of political parties and individual MEPs.

Throughout her leadership on the derogation Ms Sippel has been vocally supported in her stance by a member of a German far left party who is also on LIBE (Cornelia Ernst) and by the only member of the German Pirate Party in the entire Parliament (Patrick Breyer). He too is on LIBE. I’ll come back to this. Soon.

The tourism industry fared differently

Last week the Commission produced a proposal to establish a system of “vaccination passports”. It was tabled in the Parliament on Thursday.

Manfred Weber, Chair of the EPP Group asked for the proposal to be put on a fast track, as did the Commission. They both invoked Rule 163 of the European Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. Sippel spoke against adopting 163  suggesting her Committee should be left to do the job. She assured her colleagues they would complete the work by June.  If only children could be so lucky.

However, by more than 2:1 in plenary session Sippel’s objections to using the emergency procedure were ignored. She was defeated. Vaccination passports will be fast-tracked.

Why?

The Governments of places like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal moved straight away to impress on all their MEPs how badly their local tourist industries need vaccine passports. This would give them at least some chance of welcoming back visitors in the Summer. Money counts. Children don’t.

But really another obvious question is why did no one from the Commission or any of the several  qualifying groups seek to invoke Rule 163 for the interim derogation?

This is what Rule 163 says

“A request to treat a debate on a proposal submitted to Parliament pursuant to Rule 48(1) as urgent may be made to Parliament by the President, a committee, a political group, Members reaching at least the low threshold, the Commission or the Council. Such requests shall be made in writing and supported by reasons.”

Is it now too late  for this do be done so as to bring this tragi-farce to an end? On a straight vote in the Parliament I am pretty sure I know who would win.

How many times did the word “German” appear above?

It is very striking how three of the most energetic and vocal obstructionists on the child protection agenda  – the ones ensuring children remain in danger – are all from German political parties. I wonder if Sippel’s position is not, therefore, in some way related to internal German politics? Is this the reason she could not get agreement to the fast tracking she referred to on 4th February?

If there is anything in this theory it makes the matter even more disgraceful than it already is. It would mean the whole Parliament  – the whole might of the European Union – has not found a way to exert itself to overcome what is, in effect, an internal argument taking place within a narrow spectrum of the politics of a single country.

And children in the EU are paying the price. Not children in any other part of the world. Only in the EU’s 27 Member States. Shame. Shame.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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