An idea for a sustainable approach against projects like CleanIT or INDECT

The Twittersphere has been humming with #CleanIT these days, after a few recent articles commented on current documents which the project and the German government released and the project group prepared for its Vienna meeting.

CleanIT is a project that aims to develop best practices to reduce “terrorist use of the internet”. And they step on the toes of every person mindful of their own civil rights in the process, as they talk about filtering and scanning of the internet. To tech-savvy persons, the text reeks of technical cluelessness and dilettantism. This, combined with the reckless prioritization of a solution to an unproven problem over civil rights, has led to the project being titled “the stupidest list of proposed internet rules in the history of mankind”.

INDECT is another project that shares a high overlap in critics with CleanIT. INDECT is trying to develop automated systems for crime detection. Its general direction: Algorithms instead of people should cross-reference CCTV-footage with other sources of information and alarm the authorities should there be “unusual” behaviour. With a list of research goals that read like they came straight from your run-of-the-mill cyberpunk dystopia, it should not come as a surprise, that these ideas have quickly gotten the attribute “high-tech Orwellian”.

What both of these projects have in common is how they came to be, and what kind of an organisational body they are. Please bear with me, I find that knowing the following is essential to understanding this approach of doing something against such projects.

The nature of the beast

Both projects are EU-funded, through the Union’s Framework Programme 7 (FP7). While this at first created a huge backlash against the European Commission, this reveals a misunderstanding of what such a project is.

FP7 is meant to foster research within the European Union, in a huge variety of fields. In general, this is a very useful thing, and EU funding programmes like FP7 or others (there’s regional funding, funding for education, funding for youth matters and more) have brought forth projects that worked on rather uncontroversially “good” things for society and citizens. Here’s just one example I recently stumbled upon: http://www.wellspent.eu/ Most projects are only backed by a lot smaller organisations than the WWF and therefore don’t have such nice PR materials to bring their benefits across.

The catch is, that some topics fall into the scope of the funding programmes without necessarily being in the general public interest. CleanIT and INDECT applied themselves as “security research” projects, which is just as valid as many other kinds of research according to the current rules.

To get funding, you apply for it at a working level. You, as in an organization or member state that has an idea for a project. These things don’t come out of thin air on a European level. Judging by the Twittersphere, some people were still surprised to find that the German government is involved in CleanIT. Of course they are. They started it. Together with the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium and Spain they thought the whole thing up, made it into a nice project draft and then successfully applied for funding.

There are usually separate agencies, which handle the programmes and/or grants. For FP7, this is CORDIS. Even though some projects may suit the personal agenda of the Commissioner of the policy field in question more or less, they are not the ones who review the applications. There is no conspiracy about this. Funding is bureaucratically granted or rejected by civil servants, according the legal basis of the funding programme. It’s just like if you would ask for a grant from your city for your local sports club or other not-for-profit local organisation – just with a few more zeroes and a lot more paperwork.

For FP7, the legal basis was approved by the European Parliament and the Council in 2006 and subsequently published in the EU’s official journal. Any agenda you find in the structure of the type of projects granted was determined back then – such as keeping FP7 open to “security” projects.

Here’s the good news.

The FP7 programme ends after 2013. It will have a successor, FP8 or, as the Commission’s PR department prefers, “Horizon 2020“. And before the eurosceptics start sharpening their pitchforks and start yelling “scrap the whole programme!”, let me remind you again that these programmes are a more or less neutral platform, and not primarily a vessel to finance the likes of CleanIT or INDECT.  Horizon 2020 in its current form probably allows such projects to make use of its funds as well. But that is not yet written in stone.

Like FP7, Horizon 2020 will have to pass the European Parliament. In a way, it will even have to pass twice – once directly, when the EP even has the opportunity to press for changes, and once more when the EP approves the Union budget for 2014. The European Parliament is a lot more susceptible to the European citizens’ concerns than the Commission or even national parliaments, as it has shown when it rejected ACTA. In addition, 2014 will be a European election year.

What to do?

Therefore, I think the best way to prevent EU funding from going into obscure and/or nightmarish security projects is this: Contact your Member of the European Parliament. Tell him or her that you are concerned that such a well-meaning idea as the promotion and funding of  scientific research is being abused to endanger civil rights. Tell him or her that you couldn’t possible vote for somebody who votes Yes on a text for Horizon 2020 that doesn’t explicitly forbid projects that focus on improvement of citizen surveillance or control of the internet. Ask those questions again when the campaigning starts, follow through with the part about voting.

Civil rights advocates can and should of course also protest the current projects. And it looks like it might have worked, as the EuroISPA now officially rejects CleanIT – and is of course essential to the implementation of its most criticised points. To implement parts of INDECT there will be need for additional legislation, which also gives another angle of opposition.

But the next approach to abuse technology against civil rights will surely come. So I believe a more sustainable approach would be to go after public European funding options for such projects. How about calling this CleanHorizon?

tl;dr

My take on a sustainable approach against anti civil rights projects such as CleanIT or INDECT is to try to prohibit granting funds to anything that endangers civil rights. The renewal of the EU research programme FP7  (generally a neutral platform that is also funding a lot of good things) is just around the corner. It’s  called “Horizon 2020″. Talk to your MEPs about it, tell them to please amend the text with surveillance and censorship prohibition.

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