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Privacy or Pedophilia: Europe Debates Proposal to Save All Internet Search Data

smile29 website

An image on the anti-pornography website SMILE29.eu shows a young girl, her mouth symbolically ripped away. (SMILE29)

On the oddly named website SMILE29.eu, a young girl’s liquid eyes cry “save me.” A strip across her mouth is ripped away, symbolizing that she has no voice. And, in 22 languages, she pleads with Europe to stop pedophilia and other sex crimes by forcing search engines to save every keystroke for two years -- and hand them over to police when asked.

SMILE29.eu is the website affiliated with “Written Declaration 29,” a measure adopted recently by the European Parliament that advocates extending the European Union’s Data Retention Directive to include search engines. Its aim, sponsors say, is to ensure that women and children aren’t targeted by predators trolling the Internet for victims. 

It's a worthy goal, but critics say the data retention requirement for search engines was sneaked surreptitiously into the proposal, and that the declaration doesn’t address the problem. 

Pedophiles and other sex marauders, experts say, don't randomly scan the Web for victims. They say prosecutions, fear of exposure and public humiliation have driven pedophiles to create and use far more sophisticated sites than open search engines. In short, the critics say, this commendable effort to stop sex crimes will do nothing of the sort and, instead, is a cloak for a massive assault on privacy.

The June 23 adoption of the “written declaration” will have no immediate impact or force of law. Under European Parliamentary rules the adoption of a written declaration merely means that a majority of the 736 members of the European Parliament “think” the topic is worthy of further consideration.

Signing written declarations is much like American legislators voting for resolutions, which also have no binding legal impact, and many members say they signed simply because it was an easy way to be against pornography and pedophilia. But as the implications of the proposal sank in, an effort developed to have members withdraw their support.

Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish Member of Parliament who has withdrawn her name from the declaration, said signing was “a mistake” that happened simply because it was “an easy thing to do.” She said members of Parliament were “unaware” that the measure called for massive data retention when they signed the declaration .

The measure, it was also discovered, would force Europe’s “most private search engine,” Ixquick, into obsolescence or a massive restructuring. Ixquick ensures privacy by eliminating all traces of messages and other data after they are sent. The company, which was awarded Europe’s first privacy seal, believes it was targeted by the declaration, and it has vowed to fight it further. 

The measure, on the other hand, would have no impact on Google, Yahoo, Bing and other international search engines, because they already maintain date for various lengths of time.

Ixquick estimates the measure would violate the privacy of 500 million Internet users.

Even if the European Parliament passes the measure, it will face a long and difficult battle to become law, according to Katitza Rodriguez of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Courts in several European nations have already found that the blanket data retention called for in the measure is unconstitutional.

“There is no rational evidence of the need for Written Declaration 29,” Rodriguez said, adding that “the Directive that it extends has proven not only unpopular” but is in apparent violation of European civil rights guarantees.

“Five states haven’t even adopted the directive Written Declaration 29 is supposed to extend, and courts in Ireland and Germany have found that data retention legislation is unconstitutional," she said. 

"Moreover it may be in violation of the European Constitution of Human Rights. It just comes at the wrong time and we don’t see that it has much future.”