A fight against child pornography or control over the citizens?

The Moldovan government’s initiative to toughen control over the Internet and private online communication (the theme that has recently become particularly topical in Georgia, too), has stirred fierce debates in public.

The matter concerns the bill that is popularly referred to as the ‘Big Brother’ Law’. The latter vests the investigative agencies with the right to block websites, monitor personal emails, SMS, as well as Viber and WhatsApp messages – and all those measures aim to ensure efficient fight against child pornography and terrorism.

Official Chișinău is looking forward to the Venice Commission’s final conclusion on the aforesaid bill.

However, the experts ring the alarm bells, claiming that the bill is nothing but an attempt to impose censorship on the Internet.

The Moldovan government approved the draft ‘Big Brother’ Law’ as early as on March 30, 2016. It was soon registered in Parliament.

“The law aims to prevent and combat cyber-crime and spread of child pornography in Moldova,” Vyacheslav Bedereu, one of the initiators of the bill and investigator at MoI Anti-Cybercrime Center, explained then.

This allegation was refuted by many in the civil society, including Vadim Vieru, a lawyer at Promo-Lex public organization:

“The law-enforcement agencies’ powers in the IT field are expanding too much. For example, the bill provides for blocking IP-addresses of the servers where various websites are located,” he said.

The officials from the National Association of Private ICT Companies also expressed concern that the law-enforcement agencies could possibly abuse the powers vested in them under the new law. Namely, they will get access to the personal data of thousands of users.

“We are concerned about legal purity of the data control. The matter concerns huge databases that could be expanded to dozens, hundreds of thousands of people,” says Cristian Şchiopu, a legal adviser to the National Association of Private ICT Companies.

Journalists also take the bill with incredulity. In their opinion, it isn’t aimed much at combating crime, but is rather against certain categories of citizens or professionals, like investigative journalists. Moreover, there was such a precedent in the past.

“In April 2009, several websites were blocked for a couple of days, but that didn’t concern the child pornography websites. Among the blocked websites were ‘Unimedia’, ‘Ziarul de Gardă’, as well as some other online resources that covered the developments in Moldova. We haven’t eventually got the government’s clear explanation of the reasons for blocking those websites,” says Alina Radu, ‘Ziarul de Gardă’ CEO.

Interception for unclear reasons

Human rights activists also confirm that the Moldovan law-enforcers already have extensive experience of intercepting citizens’ private communication.

Nadejda Hriptievschi, a spokesperson for the Legal Resource Center Moldova (LRCM), claims that 10,000 phone conversations were tapped in 2015.

“Why? What happened that there were so many phone interceptions? We have also witnessed some information leaks, for example, with regard to some high-profile phone conversations. We still don’t know the source of data leak,” says the expert.

In her words, no one eventually answered the question about who actually made those records and how they got in mass media and on social networks.

“All of us agree that we need the bill that will provide the instruments for combating cyber-crime, as well as child pornography. At the same time, we want to make sure that the introduced amendments are not at variance with the human rights and that we are not developing a system that is actually a set of mass surveillance measures,” says Hriptievschi.

According to Bogdan Manolea, Executive Director of the Association for Technology and Internet (ApTI), the mass surveillance measures have never proved to be effective in combating crime and terrorism. And the previous recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), as well as the USA’s best practices, testify to that.

In anticipation of verdict

At the behest of representatives of the civil society, the ‘Bill No. 161’ was submitted to the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s body, which examines the member-states’ laws for their compliance with the democratic standards.

As reported, the Commission has found a number of problematic provisions in the bill, which should be amended or excluded from the document. In particular, this concerns vesting of excessive powers in the law-enforcement agencies for interception of computer data, as well as mass surveillance measures that, in the Commission’s opinion, are inefficient, costly and illegitimately violate the privacy right.

The Commission is expected to produce its report on the document already at the end of March 2017.