The Online Safety Bill: Where Are We Now and Will It Succeed?

Image via Shutterstock

The House of Lords is currently debating at Committee Stage the Online Safety Bill, a landmark piece of legislation which introduces a new set of internet laws to protect children and adults from online harms.

The Bill will establish a regulatory framework for certain online services. These include user-to-user services, such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and search services, such as Google.

The UK government’s stated aim in introducing the Bill is “to make Britain the best place in the world to set up and run a digital business, while simultaneously ensuring that Britain is the safest place in the world to be online”.

The BIll will place duties of care on both regulated user-to-user service providers and regulated search service providers. The regulated service providers would have duties relating to, among other things: (a) illegal content; (b) protecting children; (c) user empowerment; (d) content of democratic importance, news publisher content and journalistic content; (e) freedom of expression and privacy; and (f) fraudulent advertising.

The Bill also does two other distinct but interconnected things. It introduces age-verification requirements in relation to pornography providers (which are not user-to-user); as well as new criminal offences, e.g., encouraging self-harm and epilepsy trolling.

This makes it a long, wide-ranging and complex Bill.

Moreover, the Bill will place more responsibility on technology giants to keep their users safe. It will give Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, the power to levy fines against non-compliant providers, and would make senior managers liable to imprisonment for not complying with a direction to provide Ofcom with information.

But what impact is the BIll expected to have? What concerns are there about the implementation of this new regime?

Prof. Lorna Woods (Professor of Internet Law, University of Essex), who devised the systems-based approach to online regulation that has been adopted by the Government and whose work is widely regarded as laying the groundwork for the UK’s Online Safety Bill, was recently interviewed on this new regulatory approach.

Photo by Austin Distel via Unsplash

On 11 May 2023, Prof. Woods stepped inside BBC Radio 4’s Briefing Room to be interviewed by David Aaronovitch. She talked about what is actually in the Bill, how the new internet laws are intended to work and what potential weaknesses still remain. The programme can be accessed here.

Prof. Woods also joined Conan D’Arcy of the Global Counsel tech policy team to talk about the UK tech regulation, discuss recent criticisms of the Online Safety Bill, as well as the regulation of generative AI tools like ChatGPT. You can listen to the podcast here (published on 17 May 2023).

A Study on Ignorance and Blame

Photo by krakenimages via Unsplash

The adage ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ is significantly inaccurate. Ignorance and mistake of law do, under certain circumstances, exclude responsibility both in national and international criminal law.

Dr. Antonio Coco‘s recently published monograph The Defence of Mistake of Law in International Criminal Law updates the existing reviews of law and practice on the topic, aiming to go a step further: it takes the analysis of mistake of law as a starting point for systematic observations about international criminal law in general.

First, the book defines the contours of the defence of mistake of law in the general theory of criminal law, distinguishing it from cognate defences and highlighting, most notably, its connection with superior orders.

Secondly, it gives an overview of the possible approaches to the defence, offering examples from national law as terms of reference for the subsequent analysis of international criminal law.

Thirdly, it surveys the relevant law and practice of international criminal tribunals, with a focus on the International Criminal Court, and it contemplates offences for which a defence of mistake of law may potentially succeed.

Finally, the author tries to interpret what the rules on mistake of law applicable before international criminal tribunals imply about the purpose of punishing individuals and the legitimacy of such punishment.

Published by OUP

Whilst the discourse on international criminal law is more and more concerned with global politics, The Defence of Mistake of Law in International Criminal Law brings back the focus on the appropriateness of imposing a guilty verdict on the individual defendant, a human being constituting the basic unit of each society.

The Criminalisation of Cybercrime: Connected Dots and Blind Spots in the Development of Legal Instruments

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Building on her 15-year research on cybercrime, Dr. Audrey Guinchard, Senior Lecturer at the Essex Law School, gave a presentation on the criminalisation of cybercrime at the 2022 Society of Legal Scholars (SLS) Conference, held on 6-9 September at King’s College London.

In her paper, Dr. Guinchard explained that regulating crime is the traditional domain of nation states; cybercrime is no exception. The first legal instruments to tackle computer-focused crimes (e.g., unauthorised access or hacking) date back to the seventies and eighties. Yet, international institutions such as the OECD and the Council of Europe have quickly recognised the transborder nature of cybercrime, keen to push for the creation of a level-playing field and better cooperation among nation-states. In fact, we could even argue that international efforts of criminalisation are concomitant, if not anticipatory, of national legal instruments on cybercrime.

Dr. Guinchard pointed out that what is less known behind this push for harmonisation is the role of the computing community, a scientific community which has international dialogue at its heart and which has frequently engaged with legal professionals more than legal professionals have engaged with computer scientists. These key features of the criminalisation of cybercrime continue to shape modern legislation as the movement for reforming the UK Computer Misuse Act demonstrates.

Yet, Dr. Guinchard emphasised that blind spots remain: comparative law analyses can be superficial; the international outlook remained dominated by Western/European countries, ignoring the many voices of Asia, Africa and Latin America; the link between improving cybersecurity and decreasing cybercrime remains unappreciated; and criminalisation can carry hidden agendas which turn the fight against cybercrime into a battleground of values, as the recent push for the UN treaty on cybercrime illustrates.

So, if the transborder nature of cybercrime has long been a rallying cry for its worldwide criminalisation, the resulting legal frameworks continue to be subjected to various influences and forces, acknowledged and unacknowledged, leading to a paucity of information as to how effective the law is in tackling cybercrime. Dr. Guinchard argued that reflecting on those pathways to criminalisation may allow us to move away from these hypes and understatements which have marred the field since its inception.

A copy of Dr. Guinchard’s slides can be downloaded below. She can be contacted at this email address:

The New Harmful Communications Offence and the Online Safety Bill

Photo by Gilles Lambert

By Prof. Lorna Woods and Dr. Alexandros Antoniou, University of Essex, School of Law

There has been much discussion about the threshold at which the new offence in cl 151 of the Online Safety Bill (OSB) might bite. We demonstrate here that the threshold is, as it is intended to be, very high, a long way above mere hurt feelings. Indeed, this new offence would tighten up considerably the regime currently in force – to strike it out would maintain a lower threshold.

The Online Safety Bill, in addition to the regulatory regime, introduces a number of criminal offences, including two communications offences which are a reformulation of the existing s 127 Communications Act 2003 offences. They are not novel but rather seek to ensure that the criminal law is better fitted to the current online environment, and are focussed on the harm caused by these communications.

There are three communications offences, in addition to the cyber-flashing offence (cl 157):

  • Harmful communications offence (cl 151)
  • False communications offence (cl 152)
  • Threatening communications offence (cl 153).

This blog focuses on the first of these – the harmful communications offence.

What does it do?

It is a general harm-based communications offence to replace the current offences under s 1 of the Misuse of Communications Act 1988 and s 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003. It shifts focus from the content of a communication to its potentially harmful effects.

For a person to be prosecuted, there is a three-fold test to apply:

  1. there must have been a “real and substantial risk” that the message “would cause harm to a likely audience”
  2. the person sending the message intended that harm; and
  3. the defendant had no reasonable excuse for sending the message.

These elements must all be proven by the prosecution. The Government has tabled an amendment (NC13) which would exempt a ‘recognised news publisher’ (as defined in cl 50) from the offence in cl 151. At the time of writing, the amendment has not yet been debated.

How does this affect the threshold for criminal liability?

In its proposals to the Government, the Law Commission was clear that the new offences would set a higher threshold for criminal liability than the current rules do (para 1.35, para 2.82), though it may catch some material that would not have been caught but arguably should have been caught (the technically legal; see in particular para 1.5 and 1.6).

The Law Commission justifies raising the threshold not because it would necessarily be illegitimate to criminalise the content, but because it was unnecessary where there is a regulatory regime that deals with ‘harmful but legal’ content (para 2.9). There seems then to be a link between the higher criminal threshold and the existence of the legal but harmful provisions in the Online Safety Bill.

Looking at the threshold, cl 151(4) defines ‘harm’ as “at least serious distress”. According to the Law Commission, the use of the word “serious” was to indicate this raising of the threshold for the criminal offence. In its view, “serious” does not simply mean “more than trivial”. It means a “big, sizeable harm“.

The Law Commission notes that the term “serious distress” already features in the criminal law which allows “the courts to use existing experience and understanding” (para 2.52) as a starting point (the Law Commission expressly noted that this offence should not be bound to the harassment case law, para 2.81). It seems the threshold will be less than that of a ‘recognised medical condition’; nor need it have a substantial adverse effect on a person’s usual day-to-day activities. The Law Commission has also suggested that (once the offence is enacted) non-statutory guidance be given providing a non-exhaustive list of factors to be taken into account (para 2.83).

The Law Commission also views the fact that the offence requires that there be a risk of harm means that the offence is limited to where the harm is foreseeable by the defendant (as opposed to the possibility of actual harm no matter how unlikely). This means that there must be more than a mere risk or possibility of harm.  The requirement that there be a likely audience means that the risk of harm can be assessed in relation to the particular characteristics of the audience.

The other two elements noted above also operate to limit the scope of the offence. The DCMS has produced a factsheet on the new offence and provided clarification of how the harmful communications offence is intended to work. The intent to harm – or rather the lack of it – could be seen in the case of a call on Zoom to a doctor during which upsetting medical news is broken. There, the doctor was not intending to cause distress but to inform the patient of the facts.

The factsheet also suggests that political satirical cartoons would be unlikely to be caught by the offence: there is no evidence that the individual intended to cause at least serious distress; moreover, given the importance of political speech, it is likely that the cartoonist would be seen as having a reasonable excuse for sending the message. A similar point could be made about images from warzones.

It also gives the example of a tweet sent to the followers of the person tweeting, which says “I want to make my position on this issue clear, I do not believe that trans individuals are real women.” According to the factsheet, the person tweeting was contributing to a political debate, albeit a controversial one. This means that the person sending the communication has a reasonable excuse for sending it.

Investigating Allegations of Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in Humanitarian Settings

Photo by Claudia Soraya on Unsplash

Professor Carla Ferstman is a member of the Justice Rapid Response (JRR) Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Justice Experts Roster. She recently wrote a research paper for JRR on the investigation of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) allegations involving children.

Along with Fabian Ilg, who is a Justice Rapid Response Roster Expert, Prof. Ferstman participated in a launch event: Investigating Allegations of Sexual Exploitation & Abuse of Children Occurring in Humanitarian Settings: Reflections from Practice (recording available). 

Prof. Ferstman and Fabian Ilg recently conducted an interview with JRR about the research paper. Their responses are reproduced on the ELR Blog below with permission and thanks.

Carla, As the author of the report, could you summarize the key findings and its recommendations?

The purpose of the report is to explain the key challenges to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving child victims. It is not a “how to” guide, but there are several clear messages to the report.

First, allegations of SEA involving child victims are likely to happen in settings that present unequal power dynamics. This will include fragile settings whether impacted by conflict, insecurity, weak governance, poverty, disease, or natural disasters. Because of this likelihood, all humanitarian agencies and organizations working in these environments need to actively prepare for such eventualities. Hoping that it won’t happen is simply not a good enough strategy. Active preparation includes having clear child-friendly policies in place, being proactive about uncovering child SEA, having specialist staff on hand, and taking effective steps to mitigate the risk of SEA involving child victims.

Second, agencies and organizations should ensure that their policies and practices maximize the rights of child victims. Ensuring the best interests of the child in relation to SEA investigations is not only about protecting children from psychological and other forms of harm during investigations; it also requires that children’s rights to information, to participate in investigation processes, to justice and to reparations are all maximized to the greatest possible extent. How child victims are consulted during SEA investigations should reflect their evolving capacities and their maturity. Third, agencies and organizations should recognize and address the conflicts of interest they often have when conducting SEA investigations. This includes ensuring children have access to independent advice and support about how best their interests, needs and rights can be respected during a SEA investigation and subsequently.

Being the first report of its kind, dedicated to exploring the issue of SEA investigations through a child-centered perspective, what do you hope it will achieve?

It is hoped that the report will raise awareness about a really complex issue that arises all too often in humanitarian settings.

Hopefully, it will spur agencies and organizations to action, so that the needs and rights of child victims can be met and so that accountability for this horrific crime can prevail.

Fabian, why do you feel that this project and paper are important and needed? 

First, I am very proud and glad to have had the opportunity to participate in this very important project and to bring in some of my own experience from the field while investigating different SEA cases involving children (CSEA) over many years, both as a JRR expert and as a professional in law enforcement.
This report is one of the most complete documents created about this topic and fills a large void. Over the past years, the focus to improve protection of CSEA victims has increased a lot. As a result, organizations working in the humanitarian sector have needed guidance and specific standards to prevent CSEA, as many CSEA cases still occur regularly all over the world. Now more than ever, it is very important to do the utmost to protect children, the most vulnerable human beings, to treat them with respect during this process, and to start helping survivors to make their future life as bearable as possible. This report provides the needed guidance in a comprehensive manner, and is therefore a perfect tool for all who may be involved with CSEA during their work.

As someone who has conducted SEA investigations, how do you have to adapt your approach to investigate SEA against children?

SEA investigations are very complex on different levels. CSEA investigations are an even greater challenge. In many cases, material evidence is missing and the victims’ voice is the only proof. Relationships of dependency and abuse of power are some of the usual modus operandi used by perpetrators, to make victims appear to have wanted the sexual contact. In court, judges follow the strong voice of the lawyers of the perpetrators and the statements of adults often have a much higher weight than that of children. Children are very vulnerable and can often not distinguish between right and wrong, and as such their judgement is viewed as limited. Furthermore, the chances of their re-victimization at a later point in time are sadly quite high.

This makes CSEA very different from SEA. We, as CSEA investigators, have a grave responsibility to protect these young victims, and must do so by putting them in the centre of the investigation. This starts with ensuring all their rights are protected during the investigation process. Among other things, to be interviewed is a very traumatic experience for a child. The victim-centred approach is in many ways the most critical step to support a child and provides them with the chance of having a bearable life in the future.

Nevermind at 30: Why the Nirvana Baby Lawsuit is a Warning for Parents

Photo by Jurian Kersten

Alexandros Antoniou, Lecturer in Media Law, University of Essex

Nirvana’s album Nevermind has reached its 30th anniversary and is under more scrutiny than ever as a result of a lawsuit recently filed by the former cover-star.

Spencer Elden, the underwater baby tempted by a dollar bill on a fishhook, is suing the band and Kurt Cobain’s estate for having “knowingly produced, possessed, and advertised commercial child pornography”. The claim states that the band benefited financially from their participation in his “sexual exploitation”. Elden now seeks a civil remedy of US$150,000 per defendant for the “lifelong damages” he claims to have suffered.

Originally inspired by Cobain’s fascination with waterbirths, it has been said the cover can be interpreted as a comment on the values society imparts to the youth. The same picture is, however, interpreted differently in the lawsuit which attempts to weave in the idea that the image was designed to elicit a sexual response from viewers.

It goes so far as to suggest that Cobain “chose” the image depicting Elden “like a sex worker – grabbing for a dollar bill that is positioned dangling from a fishhook in front of his nude body”.

The legal argument

Under US federal law, a key factor in distinguishing between the artistic cover and illegal explicit content is whether the depiction of the minor constitutes a “lascivious exhibition” of their intimate parts – in other words, a depiction designed to excite sexual stimulation in the viewer. Also, any determination of lasciviousness must be based on the depiction taken as a whole, with its overall content and context in mind.

Elden is likely to face an uphill struggle in persuading a court that the cover is deliberately focused on the baby’s genitals and that the creators intended to elicit a sexual response – as the first thing most people probably notice is the underwater background.

But, even if he was successful on the child pornography ground, the difficult question would arise of whether fans who own or have downloaded the album with its cover art have copies of a child sex image and so have committed a crime.

The lawsuit also suggests that Elden has suffered a “loss of enjoyment of life” and had his privacy violated. But it could be pointed out that Elden has previously acted in ways that continue to cement his connection with the band. He has re-enacted the cover to honour the album’s past anniversaries and attended events to sign album covers.

Although it’s not unusual for people to reconsider the impact of their experiences from early life, the fact that Elden leaned into the public sphere and seemingly relished his involvement with the album may dilute the strength of his claims.

Couldn’t consent

Elden’s parents were reportedly paid US$250 for the photo shoot. Presumably, this was a standard rate for an unknown model rather than taking into account what the image would be used for.

It is uncertain whether this money was passed down to Elden. He has expressed his bitterness about having never directly profited from his involvement in the Nevermind project. As his parents’ deal cannot now be renegotiated, some might dismiss his current lawsuit as an attempt to get compensation for the commercialisation of his image.

At the core of Elden’s lawsuit is the fact that the band’s team got his parent’s consent before photographing him. Though of course being a baby, Elden did not have any choice. And from this perspective, Elden’s case is a useful reminder for parents to think about the types of images they share online.

A warning to ‘sharents’

A lot has changed since the release of Nevermind in September 1991. With the rise of social media sites and photo-sharing networks, the average parent today is said to share over 1,000 images of their child online before their fifth birthday. Compared to the Nirvana baby album cover, images shared online nowadays are even harder to control.

Indeed, a recent study found that 42% of teenagers in 25 countries are troubled by what their parents post about them on social media.

Although some steps have been taken to protect children’s privacy online – such as the introduction of the Children’s Code which applies to digital services that target minors – the law is not clear as to whether a child’s right to privacy is essentially lost when parents share their images online.

The legal avenues currently available do not guarantee protection against parental “over-sharenting” either, meaning that so-called “generation tagged” may have to live with the longevity of their digital footprint – often attached to them without their consent.

Elden has previously addressed the popularity of the iconic cover and he appears conflicted about it. His ambivalence about the image may be valid. The public’s perception of the album and the visceral feelings attached to its success should not discourage a dispassionate and neutral legal assessment of whether the photograph is unlawful.

But the Nirvana baby lawsuit also serves as a timely reminder to parents to think carefully of the digital shadows they may create for their children. Indeed, parents cannot simply have a “nevermind” attitude to what they share online.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Civil Claims are a Necessary Part of the Arsenal to Address Military Excesses

Carla Ferstman and Noora Arajärvi, University of Essex, published a report which assesses the UK Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which makes provision about legal proceedings and consideration of derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights in connection with operations of the armed forces outside the British Islands.

The Bill was introduced in Parliament on 4 November 2020 by Mr Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence of the United Kingdom, and sets out a series of measures intended to make it more difficult to prosecute current and former Service personnel for conduct occurring more than five years ago when operating overseas.

The Bill also restricts judicial discretion to allow civil claims for personal injury and/or death and claims under the Human Rights Act 1998 in respect of overseas operations by requiring the court to consider additional factors (on top of those that already exist in law) when deciding whether to allow a claim outside the set limitation periods.

The proposed legislation has provoked considerable debate in both Houses of Parliament, amongst former service personnel, lawyers, academics and civil society. Much of the discussion surrounding the Bill has also focused on the extent to which the proposed changes to how decisions about potential prosecutions are taken will negatively impact upon the capacity for the UK to implement its obligations under international human rights law and the International Criminal Court statute.

The focus of this report

The report focuses on civil claims for personal injury and/or death and claims under the Human Rights Act 1998 in respect of overseas operations.

The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill sets out several rationales for the introduction of the reforms to civil and human rights claims, and the authors of the report saw value in scrutinising these justifications in some depth, given the significance of the proposed reforms and the limited attention they have received to date.

As the report explains, the civil claim longstop would have the effect of shielding the Ministry of Defence from public scrutiny and legal accountability and would take away crucial means by which to ensure transparency and to promote institutional lessons learned.

To make this assessment, Carla Ferstman and Noora Arajärvi carried out a review of civil and human rights judgments pertaining to overseas operations, issued within the last twenty years. These have mainly concerned claims against the Ministry of Defence, though their sample has also included claims involving overseas engagements by the security services and other parts of government to the extent relevant.

The report argues:

  • Considering the checks and balances within the UK legal system and how it operates as a whole, impeding access to civil and human rights claims ignores the vital role such claims play in ensuring that criminal investigations and prosecutions and related accountability processes are not shut down prematurely. A crucial means of oversight will be lost.
  • Victims’ access to reparation is an important value worthy of protection and a fundamental and obligatory aspect of UK human rights obligations. This is especially the case for claims involving wrongful death, torture, and ill-treatment; and
  • The introduction of limitation periods for civil and human rights claims without a possibility for judges to be able to use their discretion to extend them where the exigencies of the circumstances so require, is a significant and unjustifiable limitation of claimants’ access to reparation.

Carla Ferstman‘s and Noora Arajärvi’s research was facilitated by the University of Essex’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

A copy of their report can be accessed here.

Enhancing Cross-Border Access to Electronic Information in Criminal Proceedings: Towards a new E-Evidence legal framework in the EU

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Dr Oriola Sallavaci, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

In recent years cross-border exchange of electronic information has become increasingly important to enable criminal investigations and prosecutions. As I have discussed in depth in my study “Rethinking Criminal Justice in Cyberspace: The EU E-evidence framework as a new model of cross-border cooperation in criminal matters” the use of technology has transformed the nature of crime and evidence leading to ‘crime without borders’ and ‘globalisation of evidence’. An increasing number of criminal investigations rely on e-evidence and this goes beyond cyber-dependent and cyber-enabled crimes. From an evidential point of view, today almost every crime could have an e-evidence element as often offenders use technology, such as personal computers, notepads, and camera phones, where they leave traces of their criminal activity, communications or other pieces of information that can be used to determine their whereabouts, plans or connection to a particular criminal activity. 

Crime today often has a cyber component and with it an increasingly prominent cross border dimension because electronic information to be used for investigative or evidentiary purposes is frequently stored outside of the investigating State. The borderless nature of cyberspace, the sophistication of the technologies and offenders’ modii operandi pose specific and novel challenges for crime investigation and prosecution that, in practice, may lead to impunity.  In 2018 the European Commission found that in the EU “more than half of all investigations involve a cross-border request to access [electronic] evidence.” Yet, alarmingly, “almost two thirds of crimes involving cross-border access to e-evidence cannot be effectively investigated or prosecuted”. Challenges to accessibility relate inter alia to the volatility of e-information, availability and the location of data, as well as the legislative barriers and shortcomings that must be overcome to enhance cross-border access to electronic evidence and the effectiveness of public-private cooperation through facilitated information exchange.

Cross border access to e-information is currently conducted through traditional judicial cooperation channels and requests are often addressed to specific states which are hosts to many service providers (SP). In the EU these include Mutual Legal Assistance requests and European Investigation Orders according to Directive 2014/41/EU which provides for the acquisition, access and production of evidence in one Member State (MS) for criminal investigations and proceedings in another Member State.  The nature of the existing judicial cooperation instruments, actors and procedures involved, and the ever-increasing number of requests have resulted in delays and inefficiencies, posing specific problems for investigations and prosecutions that are exacerbated by the volatility of electronic information.

In the EU, there is no harmonised framework for law enforcement cooperation with service providers. In recent years, Member States have increasingly relied on voluntary direct cooperation channels with service providers, applying different national tools, conditions and procedures. Service providers may accept direct requests from LEAs for non-content data as permitted by their applicable domestic law. However, the fragmented legal framework creates challenges for law enforcement, judicial authorities and service providers seeking to comply with legal requests, as they are increasingly faced with legal uncertainty and, potentially, conflicts of law.

Cross border access to electronic information requires legal instruments that are capable of efficiently supporting criminal investigations and prosecutions and that, at the same time, have in place adequate conditions and safeguards that ensure full compliance with fundamental rights and principles recognised in Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular the principles of necessity, legality and proportionality, due process, protection of privacy and personal data, confidentiality of communications, the right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and procedural rights of defence, as well as the right not to be tried or punished twice in criminal proceedings for the same criminal offence.

In order to achieve these objectives and overcome difficulties present in the existing mechanisms of cross-border cooperation, in April 2018 the EU Commission proposed an important legislative package referred to as “E-evidence”, aimed at facilitating the access to e- evidence by European law enforcement agencies (LEAs). The framework contains two legislative measures: a Regulation which provides two new mechanisms for LEA’s cross border access to e-evidence: European Production Order and European Preservation Order which are to be addressed directly by LEAs of the issuing MS to a service provider, and a  Directive which requires every online service provider “established” in or that has “substantial connection” to at least one EU Member State to appoint a legal representative in the territory of an EU MS of choice as an addressee for the execution of the above Orders.

On 7 December 2018 the Council adopted its own draft (known as Council’s “general approach”) and after two years of delays caused partially from the EU parliamentary elections and the Covid-19 pandemic, on 11 December 2020 The EU Parliament adopted its position. On 10 February 2021 the ‘trilogue’ procedures amid the EU Parliament, the Council, and the Commission started in order to agree to a common text. In the study cited above, I have analysed in depth the key legal provisions contained in the Commission’s proposal, the Council’s draft and the report of the LIBE’s rapporteur Birgit Sippel, presented to the EU Parliament in 2020. Considering that the E-evidence framework is currently being negotiated, the study’s analysis and findings aim to contribute to achieving the best version of the forthcoming instruments.

The EU E-evidence framework is of particular importance in shaping the future of similar instruments and the terms of cooperation between countries all over the world. To a certain extent, it follows the US CLOUD Act 2018 that in itself marks a major change in how cross-border access to e-evidence may develop in the rest of the world. The EU E-evidence framework shall influence and at the same time needs to conform to a number of new agreements currently being negotiated. In 2019 the EU Commission received a negotiating mandate to achieve an agreement between the EU and US, as well as to shape the second amending protocol of the Cybercrime Convention (CCC). Both these instruments need be negotiated from the perspective of the forthcoming E-evidence framework, therefore it is important that the latter offers provisions that increase the efficiency of investigations and prosecutions by surpassing challenges in cross-border cooperation, while maintaining safeguards to fundamental rights of individuals.

The E-Evidence legislative package lays down the rules under which, in a criminal proceeding, a competent judicial authority in the European Union may directly order a service provider offering services in the Union to produce or preserve electronic information that may serve as evidence through a European Production or Preservation Order. This framework will be applicable in all cross-border cases where the service provider has its main establishment or is legally represented in another Member State. The framework aims to complement the existing EU law and to clarify the rules of the cooperation between law enforcement, judicial authorities and service providers in the field of electronic information.  The new measures for cross border access to e-evidence will not supersede European Investigation Orders under Directive 2014/41/EU or Mutual Legal Assistance procedures to obtain electronic information. Member States’ authorities are expected to choose the tool most adapted to their situation. However, authorities of the Member States will be allowed to issue domestic orders with extraterritorial effects for the production or preservation of electronic information that could be requested on the basis of the e -evidence Framework.

Despite expected improvements in the efficiency of investigations and prosecutions by simplifying and speeding up the procedures, the necessity of having a new legal framework to organize cross-border access to electronic evidence has been questioned.  The proposed e-evidence framework is perceived as adding another layer to the already complex tableau of existing, multiple channels for data access and transnational cooperation.   While alternative approaches have been considered and could have been taken by the Commission, as I have argued in depth elsewhere, a specific framework dedicated to improving access to e-evidence is more suitable to help achieve that goal than amendments to existing procedures and instruments that are general in scope and do not provide for the specific e-information  related challenges. Procedural improvements to existing cross border cooperation instruments are necessary, but not by themselves sufficient to overcome the present difficulties and inefficiencies. It is not possible to adequately respond to novel challenges with old mechanisms embedded in lengthy procedures and bureaucratic complexities. The answer is to provide adequate safeguards that protect fundamental rights and the interests of all stakeholders, suited to the new type of instruments created by the e-evidence framework, albeit not identical to the ones found in existing mechanisms of transnational cooperation.

The E-evidence model builds upon the existing models of cooperation yet is fundamentally different. The extraterritorial dimension of the framework affects the traditional concept of territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction. It departs from the traditional rule of international cooperation that cross-border access to electronic information requires consent of the state where the data is stored.  Most importantly, jurisdiction is no longer linked to the location of data. According to the new approach, the jurisdiction of the EU and its MSs can be established over SPs offering their services in the Union and this requirement is met if the SP enables other persons in (at least) one MS to use its services and has a substantial connection to this MS.  In this way the framework avoids the difficulties in establishing the place where the data is stored and the “loss of location” problem. E-evidence framework is a clear example of the development of the concept of territorial jurisdiction in criminal law and the evolvement of connecting factors that establish it, in line with the requirements of legal certainty.

The extraterritorial reach of judicial and state authorities’ decisions in the E-evidence framework introduces a new dimension in mutual recognition, beyond the traditional judicial cooperation in the EU in criminal matters, so far based on procedures involving two judicial authorities in the issuing and executing State respectively. This important aspect of the e-evidence framework entails a fundamentally different approach that demonstrates the (need for) development of the EU law traditional concepts in order to respond to the new challenges with adequate mechanisms. From the perspective of the proposed e-evidence framework, the scope of article 82 (1) TFEU requires further clarification from CJEU or an amendment (albeit difficult). Reliant on the principle of mutual trust, the debates surrounding the e-evidence framework reveal that in today’s European reality this principle is still an objective to be achieved. For as long as disparities in the standards and protections provided by MSs still exist, the way forward should include innovative mechanisms that allow for the control, improvement and maintenance of those standards within each MS as opposed to fostering lack of trust, prejudicial treatment and unjustifiable differentiation between MSs within the EU.

The e-evidence framework generally achieves what it sets out to do: i.e. to increase the effectiveness of cross-border access to e-evidence. The application of the same rules and procedures for access to all SPs will improve legal certainty and clarity both for SPs and LEAs which is currently lacking under the existing mechanisms of cooperation. In several aspects the framework serves as a model to be followed in the international arena. However, further improvements can be recommended:

  • There should be only an exceptional involvement of the enforcing MS as proposed by the Council, so that the framework does not replicate the existing judicial cooperation models.
  • The wording of Article 7a in the Council draft could be amended to allow for the enforcing MS to raise objections on behalf of any affected state.
  • Service Providers should maintain their reviewing powers of production and preservation orders, given the unique position they are in to understand the data. A productive dialogue and close cooperation between SPs and the issuing authorities should be promoted in the earliest stages.
  • The framework should specify the definition of e-evidence and should provide for its inadmissibility in cases of breaches of the requirements specified therein.
  • The data categories need to be better defined and brought in line with other EU and international legal instruments, as well as the jurisprudence of CJEU and ECtHR. The draft presented by EU Parliament is a positive step in that direction.
  • Judicial validation of orders issued by non-judicial authorities should be imperative for all types of data as a form of control and safeguard against abuse or overuse.
  • A classification of investigating authorities by means of a schedule in the proposed framework would help to better define the permitted activities within the scope of the Regulation.
  • A provision that clearly prohibits the production or use of e-evidence in cases contrary to the ne bis in idem principle should be included in the final draft.
  • The final instrument should adopt the approach proposed by the Commission regarding confidentiality and subject notification with an obligation for the issuing authority to inform the person whose content or transactional data are sought in all cases (even though delays should be permitted).
  • The right to exercise legal remedies should be extended to the enforcing MS and/or the MS of residence of the suspect.
  • There should be provisions that enable defendants or other parties in the criminal proceedings to access or request e-evidence. The accessibility of electronic data to the suspects / defendant’s lawyer should be ensured in order to assert their rights effectively.

If implemented, these recommendations would improve the e-evidence framework by ensuring a balance between effective criminal investigations/prosecutions and respect for fundamental rights. A balanced and principled approach should be at the core of any existing or forthcoming instruments concerning cross-border access to electronic information.

The Forever War and the Laws of War

Photo by israel palacio

Dr. Nathan Derejko, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

The looming threat of a ‘forever war’, characterised by the so-called ‘Global Battlefield’ and the perpetual applicability of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), has thrust the question of when and how Non-international Armed Conflicts (NIAC) end to the forefront of international concern and debate. In both practical and legal terms, identifying the end of a NIAC is notoriously difficult. There are several reasons for this, but two in particular should be highlighted.

First, is the complex spectrum of social, political and economic factors that underpin, propel, and ultimately bring NIACs to an end. Indeed, history is replete with NIACs spanning several years and, in some cases, several decades.

Second, is the virtual silence of IHL regarding its temporal scope of application during NIAC. While conventional IHL speaks of the ‘end of hostilities’ and the ‘end of the conflict’, it stops short of providing any guidance on the precise meaning and scope of these expressions, or the relationship between them.

These factors are further compounded by a comparative dearth in legal scrutiny of when and how NIACs end. While considerable judicial and academic analysis has focussed on IHL’s threshold of activation (when a NIAC legally comes into existence), much less attention has been given to its threshold of termination (when a NIAC legally ends).

In a recent article, A Forever War? Rethinking the Temporal Scope of Non-International Armed Conflict (published in the Journal of Conflict and Security Law), I undertake a forensic examination of IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC.

The article first explores the temporal architecture of Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II to determine what, if anything, IHL has to say about its threshold of termination. From here, it unpacks and critically examines two of the leading approaches for determining IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC: the ‘peaceful settlement’ approach advanced in the jurisprudence of International Criminal Law; and the ‘lasting pacification’ approach advanced by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

While both of these approaches possess advantages and limitations, it is argued that neither produce entirely satisfactory results for determining IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC.  In short, their common ailment is a quest for a single point in time that marks the ‘end’ of a NIAC, and at which point IHL terminates in toto. In practice, such an approach invariably results in the over-extension of IHL to factual circumstances that no longer warrant its application, or by the termination of its applicability before comprehensive protection is restored under International Human Rights Law.

For these reasons, the article develops and proposes an innovative ‘functional approach’ for determining IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC, which  addresses the silence and shortcomings of existing law and doctrine, while at the same time, holds true to the very object and purpose of IHL during NIAC.

Report Proposes New Legal Powers for the Victims’ Commissioner

Photo by Eric Ward

The role of the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales – set up in 2004 to promote the interests of the victims of crime – needs to be strengthened if it is to be effective, argues a report co-written by the Essex Law School’s Professor Maurice Sunkin together with Professor Pam Cox and Dr Ruth Lamont.

As it stands, the Victims’ Commissioner, currently Dame Vera Baird, lacks the necessary powers to carry out her statutory obligations to make sure the Victims’ Code (which sets out the standards victims can expect from the criminal justice system) is followed.

The report identifies significant gaps in the current powers of the Victims’ Commissioner compared to others such as the Children’s Commissioner for England and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Dame Vera Baird says it is her intention to make the Victims’ Code work properly for all victims, but she is currently unable to properly scrutinise victims’ rights and entitlements or to effectively hold criminal justice agencies to account.

The report states that “Currently the commissioner has no legal power to ensure that [victims’] rights are protected and that duties are performed. Since no other body has this power, this leaves an important enforcement gap.”

“This gap creates ambiguity and uncertainty. If victims’ rights are important, why is it that they cannot be enforced? If agencies have duties, why is it that they cannot be compelled to perform these duties? If rights cannot be enforced, how can victims be confident that their rights really do matter?”

The report proposes new powers which would compel criminal justice agencies to co-operate with the Victims’ Commissioner and take action where needed. The commissioner would also have a “last resort” power to bring legal action on behalf of a group of victims or to test the law “in the public interest” – if the courts found in favour of the commissioner, victims could be entitled to compensation.

There is growing consensus across the political spectrum that victims’ rights need to be enshrined in law and the Government has pledged to introduce a ‘Victims’ Law’ which will enshrine these rights. The report argues that such rights need to be enforceable and monitored.