Christian Engström, Pirat

8 april 2013

President of the European Parliament defends treating emails from citizens as spam

Filed under: demokrati i eu,English — Christian Engström @ 15:54
The European Parliament's President Martin Schulz thinks it is okay to treat emails from citizens as spam

The European Parliament’s President Martin Schulz defends treating emails from citizens as spam

On March 7, 2013, a large number of citizens tried to email members of the European Parliament to express their views on the ”Report on eliminating gender stereotypes in the EU”. The report had attracted public attention on the internet and in media, since it called for ”a ban on all forms of pornography in the media”.

One of the bloggers who wrote about this was the Pirate Party’s founder Rick Falkvinge, who asked citizens to email members of the European Parliament to let their views be heard, and set up a simple internet service to make it easy to find the addresses to the 754 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament).

Around noon on March 7, approximately 350 emails from concerned citizens had arrived, but then they suddenly stopped appearing.

This turned out to be because the parliament’s IT support department had taken the decision to block these emails by classifying them as spam, after some MEPs had requested this.

I was very upset when I found this out, and wrote a letter to the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz to complain. In the letter, I wrote:

I find it completely unacceptable that the parliament’s IT support department deliberately blocks certain emails from genuine citizens wishing to contact their elected representatives, and I find it even more unacceptable that this was done at the request of some individual MEPs (whose names and political groups I do not know).

No MEP should have the power of shutting off communication between other MEPs and their constituents using the parliament’s technical staff and infrastructure.

I look forward to your confirmation that you share this view, and that you will take immediate and appropriate action to both solve the present situation and make sure it is not repeated in the future.

I sent the letter to President Schulz on March 12. Today, almost a month later, I finally received an answer from President Schulz in the form of a paper letter which was delivered today (but dated March 28). You can read the President’s answer as a pdf here.

In his answer, the President of the European Parliament defends the blocking of the emails from citizens to MEPs as spam, and does not in any way indicate that he will do anything to prevent this from happening again.

I find this completely unacceptable.

Yes, it is quite true that 850 European citizens emailing each of the 754 Members of the European Parliament will result in several hundred thousand emails being sent. This is just straight-forward arithmetic.

But that is no justification for the administration of the European Parliament to take the decision to censor those citizens by just silently discarding the emails that citizens send, so that they do not reach the elected members.

In my opinion, citizens who take an active part in the democratic process and make their voices heard are an asset to the political system, not a problem that needs to be addressed by spam filters. It is a sad state of affairs when the President of the European Parliament disagrees.


Update: Andrew Norton writes: EU [Parliament] President and IT Staff Don’t Understand Democracy, Maths, or Truth

PC World: Blocking antiporn ban protest mails was justified, European Parliament president says

13 kommentarer

  1. 2 servers, would that be Gmail and Hotmail then or two of Gmail’s servers? Of course there will be lots of emails if all with the right to vote would contact everyone in the parlament, or is one only allowed to contact your own personal representative? Thanks for taking the fight and sharing the news – keep it up!

    Kommentar av Martin — 8 april 2013 @ 16:32

  2. This is absurd! The only thing that President Schultz manages to get through that _might_ be a valid point is one single address sending 106771 mails. And still this could very well be valid mails if it acts as a portal for individuals to contact you through. Even if these are all a massive outburst of similar mails from a single sender it should be very manageable for a organisation of this size to just merge mails with duplicate content together or similar technices. Worst case scenario they could have (temporarely) blocked this single address upon seeing that it was the sole sender of a majority of the mails coming in.

    His last point on the first page, where he compares the normal traffic (250Km/day) to show that this was a extremely large amount of mails coming in, is only showing that members does not receive very much traffic from external individuals (average 331m/day) considering the large amount of people you represent. It might be a bit much if you would go through them all individually in detail (87 seconds per mail if you have a 8 hour workday) but from my experience that would be totally manageable as many would be similar and can quickly be dismissed (duplicates, similar to other mails or just not interesting or directed to you) and the amount of time you spend on each mail is seldom more than a few seconds and often much lower than that. I also assume you have assistants that can help you digest the mailflow as you have to do other duties than reading e-mails during most of your time.
    And looking away from the possible inconvenience with a high influx of mail to the MEPs, to his final point about guaranteeing the functionality of the e-mail service I start to worry about the competence and service that is provided for you as it does not seems to have been made for scaling to very much above the normal traffic. It should be very easy to DoS the system if it is unable to cope with a mere 400% burst in traffic. To put it in perspective that means that if a MEP says something stupid and 10% of the population of sweden decided to vouch their opinion via e-mail to him/her, then we reach higher traffic from external sources than this and would put the mail-system to risk. Not that the particular scenario is very likely but EU is large and if 1 in 400 of the adult population decided to mail any single of their MEP on a day (or every adult citizen mailing a MEP once per year, evenly spread out) , the mailsystem would be at the same risk.
    This is the amount of numbers I would expect they scale it for at minimum, and try activly to reach, but I guess input from the actual voters and citizens of EU have not been very high on the agenda.

    Kommentar av Henning — 8 april 2013 @ 22:19

  3. Hmm, on reading your post I was ready to redistribute to others and do my part to push back against censorship and closed government. On reading the letter you received however, I think the matter is much less clear. I’d encourage others reading your article to be sure they also read the PDF from the EU President. If as he says they were being hit with hundreds of emails per minute from each address and as much as 100,000 messages from just one, then this looks mor like a denial of service attack than a genuine exercise in democratic free speech. It’s good that you are keeping an eye on censorship-like events, as surely they do exist, but in this case I think the action seems warranted. Thanks for sharing the news – we all need to watch for incursions on our rights and press for open government.

    Kommentar av robinwwinsorRobin Winsor — 8 april 2013 @ 22:26

  4. @Robin Windsor:

    It’s unclear I think what is referred to by 100,000 messages from a single address. Is it the same user? We don’t know.

    However, if 850 people send a mail to all 754 MEPs, that’s 640,900 mails alone. Some people would think that to be a DOS attack, but in reality it would be a terrible disadvantage for ordinary citizens not being able to pool some work, like for instance collecting all the e-mail addresses of MEPs.

    But on the other hand, those enabling mass distribution should be interested in providing a lasting service. Perhaps 27 lists of national delegations?

    Kommentar av Johan Tjäder — 8 april 2013 @ 22:59

  5. Can we have a list of fax numbers the next time please? Sending faxes is cheap and with the proper software, very easy, and I doubt they will manage to block that.

    Kommentar av Jan — 9 april 2013 @ 4:04

  6. Im with Robin Winsor on this one.

    Read Martin Schultz written reply! One have to acknowledge the problem with Astroturfing to look credible on this issue.

    Kommentar av TTime — 9 april 2013 @ 11:23

  7. […] blocks on legitimate topics can be implemented with lighting speed. Today, Christian Engstrom MEP, has received a response (shown below) to his complaint from EU President Martin […]

    Pingback av Politics & P2P | EU President and, IT Staff Don’t Understand Democracy, Maths, Truth — 9 april 2013 @ 16:11

  8. […] “In his answer, the President of the European Parliament defends the blocking of the emails from citizens to MEPs as spam, and does not in any way indicate that he will do anything to prevent this from happening again. I find this completely unacceptable,” said Engström in a blog post. […]

    Pingback av Blocking antiporn ban protest mails was justified, European Parliament president says | — 9 april 2013 @ 16:44

  9. It is certainly true that mass email campaigns can cause trouble for those who have to deal with all the incoming mail. It’s not a very rational way of handling the contact between representatives and citizens; it’s just the least bad way we have. I can think of several ways of communicating that could be implemented, that would be much more efficient and could give the MEPs a better overview of the citizens’ opinions on various proposals, but they could work only if we citizens could trust that almost all MEPs were participating in the communication and receptive of the feedback. In the current political system, protest campaigns so massive that the sheer volume attracts attention seem to be the only way that citizens can actually affect the lawmaking to some degree.

    Kommentar av Björn Persson — 9 april 2013 @ 22:15

  10. There are some things to be said about internet security here. Of course, the European parliament has a vested interest in protecting itself from different cyber threats. Mail has proven to be an effective distribution mechanism for malicious software in the past. Monitoring is clearly called for. And the mail service can of course be the target of denial of service attacks too.

    However, if you look on the merits in this case, this is not a clear cut thing. The EP was very able to handle all incoming mail traffic. As stated by the President all received mails were stored. They were simply not forwarded to the end recipients, the members of parliament. Furthermore, this action was made by the administration and without notice. A simple IT-service webpage would have sufficed.

    As follow up, there should be another followup letter to the President asking for an explanation of

    1. Who has the authority to decide on such matters, and how is such authority derived from a mandate by the parliament?
    2. What directives from the President or otherwise exists for the filtering of e-mail communication?
    3. Does the President think it is acceptable that communication is blocked without the members being noticed?

    Kommentar av Johan Tjäder — 10 april 2013 @ 6:22

  11. Reading the response from Martin Schulz, i think his reasoning doesn’t quite cut it. The first point in his analysis just says he has identified something people are annoyed with, that is not reason to throw that info in the spam folder.

    The follwing tree points are well consistent with 849 responsible citizens sending one or in rare cases two messages each to the 748 MEPs and one single little blighter abusing the service. Should that one person be able to silence the other 849?

    The two last points correctly recognizes the fact that someone had set up a service helping people send mails to the MEPs, and that that service observed proper netiquette by queuing messages and delivering them in a limited rate.

    Then hs goes on to talk about the ”functionality of the European Parliamtens e-mail system”, citing numbers I would consider high for my personal mail server, but a piece of cake to handle for a dedicated email server for an organization.

    Kommentar av Rasmus Kaj (@rasmus_kaj) — 10 april 2013 @ 9:51

  12. @Johan Tjäder,

    Thanks, good suggestion. Done:

    Kommentar av Christian Engström — 10 april 2013 @ 9:53

  13. I am so happy I voted for you guys. The best vote I have ever given! Thank you, thank you, thank you for standing up for us mortals. 🙂

    Kommentar av lillem4n — 14 april 2013 @ 22:47

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