EU Seeks Encrypted Messages Access in Crackdown on Islamism


(Bloomberg) -- European Union governments are considering a coordinated crackdown on Islamist radicalization, including an effort to gain access to encrypted communications in a move that risks stoking tensions with Muslim countries and a backlash from tech companies.

“We must protect people in Europe from Islamism,” according to a draft paper seen by Bloomberg, which has been prepared for a meeting of EU home affairs ministers on Friday, but may be elevated into a joint communique by EU leaders. It calls for the EU’s executive arm to promote religious education and training of imams within the EU “that is in line with European fundamental rights and values.”

Attacks in France and Austria have catapulted terrorism back to the top of the EU’s political agenda. French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to crack down on Islamist “separatism” and his comment that Islam was facing a “crisis” have led to conflict with some Muslim leaders, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accuse him of religious persecution.

Austria arrested 30 people on Monday as it made 60 dawn raids on various premises as part of a probe into individuals and organizations suspected to be linked to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the prosecutor’s office in the southern city of Graz. The investigation started a year ago and isn’t linked to the Islamist terrorist attack that killed four people last week, prosecutors said in a statement.

“We require mutual respect, including within religious communities,” EU governments will declare if the draft statement is approved. “This applies equally to Islam and all other religions.”

Among the measures considered is empowering governments to access encrypted communications, such as messages exchanged by most electronic chat applications. “Access to digital data is becoming ever more crucial -- whether it is connection data or in some cases data content,” the draft statement says.

A separate resolution debated among EU governments calls for “technical solutions for gaining access to encrypted data” in order to “enable authorities to use their investigative powers.” The resolution on “security through encryption and security despite encryption” is due to be adopted by governments this month, according to the draft seen by Bloomberg.

The draft resolution “does not contain any solution proposals or demands for weakening encryption systems,” the German government said in a statement. “The aim of the initiative is to enter into a permanent dialogue with companies in order to achieve a general consensus and to work together with companies on proposed solutions that represent the least possible interference with encryption systems.”

An EU policy proposal for tighter oversight of technology companies, including in areas related to removal of terrorist propaganda, is expected as soon as December. EU leaders have also added a debate on Islamist extremism to the agenda of their December summit, where relations with Turkey will be discussed, according to a separate memo to national delegations seen by Bloomberg.

“The ‘Muslim question’ today is fast becoming what the ‘Jewish question’ was in 19th-century Europe,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said in a Twitter post on Monday. “Negative attitudes towards Islam and Muslim communities are increasingly setting limits to religious tolerance, pluralism and democracy.”

Erdogan has led calls to boycott French goods over what he called France’s hostile stance toward Islam, as he seized yet another opportunity to promote himself as a leader of the Muslim world. The proposed EU communique calls for developing “a shared language at European level which distinguishes between Islam and Islamism.”

Bearing the stamp of Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, the draft also includes warnings for immigrants and asylum seekers. It says integration “is a two-way street: providing support, but expecting more in return.”

“Migrants are expected to make an active effort to become integrated, while they are offered help with integration through government integration measures,” it says. “Along with recognition of European values, what successful integration means above all is learning the language of one’s new country, earning a living for oneself and one’s family, and supporting the integration of one’s children.”

Meanwhile, the EU will seek to complete negotiations by the end of the year on legislation that could hit tech firms with fines if they fail to remove terror propaganda from their sites quickly enough. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, is also preparing to overhaul longstanding internet regulations to give platforms greater responsibility for the spread of violent hate speech, terror propaganda and other illegal content on their sites.

“Social media and other hosting service providers have a responsibility in making sure that their services are not used for illegal activities or to promote crime, terrorism or hatred,” the EU draft statement says. The aim is to create an “instrument” that will be enforceable across borders “for the effective removal of terrorist content within less than an hour of its being reported.”

Under the so-called Digital Services Act, due to be unveiled this year, tech firms could be hit with fines if they fail to do enough and could also face obligations to report regularly on content removal rates and collect identification information from business users.



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