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10th May 2021

EU businesses concerned by China snooping law

  • China wants companies to help it to decrypt online information (Photo: Bernd Thaller)

The European Union's main business representative in China said Monday (28 December) it still had concerns over the country's new anti-terrorism law, although the final text had removed some of the most worrying provisions.

The new rules were adopted on Sunday (27 December) by China's National People's Congress, the country's national parliament, which has little power of its own and mainly rubber-stamps legislation.

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Both the EU and the US had expressed concerns that the law could curtail freedom of expression and association, but China has accused critics of double standards.

Under the new rules, technology companies are required to help Chinese authorities decrypt information sent via the Internet.

However, a provision from the draft, which would require them to install “backdoors” in their software from the outset, was dropped.

“The European Chamber [of Commerce in China] recognises the positive developments in terms of removing the language that required the submission of encryption codes and server/data localization from the final version,” the business organisation said according to Reuters.

“Some concerns remain over issues such as market access, intellectual property rights, and the obligation to monitor, report and censor terrorist content,” it added.

The Americans are also not completely convinced, , deputy spokesperson for the state department Mark Toner said Monday (28 December).

“[The] United States remains concerned that the broad, vaguely phrased provisions and definitions in this law – speaking about the counterterrorism law – could lead to greater restrictions on the exercise of freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion within China.”

According to China's foreign ministry, the law is necessary and “justified”.

Just like other countries, China wants to be able to control online communications if they are being used by terrorists, China's spokesperson for foreign affairs, Hong Lei, said last Wednesday (23 December).

“With the development of information technology, the Internet has been increasingly used by terrorists as a major tool to organize, plot and conduct terrorist activities. It is imperative for us to prevent and crack down on cyber-enabled terrorist crimes by enhancing relevant institutional measures,” said Hong.

He accused the US, the most vocal critic of the law, of exercising “double standards”.

“For example, in the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act and other relevant laws, the US states in explicit terms that relevant companies shall offer assistance to law enforcement agencies in lawful interception and decryption of encrypted communication,” noted Hong.

After the law was passed, parliamentarian Li Shouwei said the new rules were similar to those in Western countries.

“This rule accords with the actual work need of fighting terrorism and is basically the same as what other major countries in the world do,” Li said according to Reuters.

The wish to have access to encryption keys, needed to decrypt secret messages, is by no means exclusively Chinese.

Almost a year ago, the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove proposed exactly what China is now introducing.

After the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, UK prime minister David Cameron said British spy agencies needed to be able to break encrypted communications.

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