Parliament approved on Friday with 96 votes to 1 president’s proposal setting December 1 as the deadline for adopting a regulation to tackle security agencies’ capability of unrestricted direct access to telecom operators’ servers.
Parliament adopted on October 30 a proposal extending the deadline from November 1, 2014 to February 28, 2015 with 65 votes to 31, but the President vetoed the decision earlier on Friday and instead offered to delay adoption of new regulation only for a month.
As the Parliament accepted president’s objection there was no longer a need to vote on overturning the presidential veto, which was the first one since Giorgi Margvelashvili took office in November, 2013.
Less than two hours after his proposal was accepted, President Margvelashvili signed it into law. In a written statement he thanked the Parliament and welcomed the decision as “a step towards country’s democratization”.
Those lawmakers from the Georgian Dream (GD) ruling coalition, who a day earlier voted for a deadline’s four-month extension, were saying on October 31 that they had to accept president’s proposal as circumstances forced them to do so and not because they shared President’s opinion.
They argued that even if GD overturned the veto, consequent procedures – president’s possible repeat veto, allowing the parliament speaker to sign the bill into law, would have left about two-week long “legal vacuum” during which the law enforcement agencies would have lost legal means for carrying out surveillance. But president’s parliamentary secretary, Giorgi Kverenchkhiladze, who presented President’s position before lawmakers, disagreed with this argument.
UNM parliamentary minority group, which was against extension of deadline and calling on the President to veto it, said that the parliamentary majority had to accept President’s proposal apparently because it was failing to garner support of 76 MPs required for overriding presidential veto.
MP Davit Saganelidze, leader of GD parliamentary majority group, which unites 83 lawmakers, said it was GD’s political decision not to try to overturn the veto, claiming that they would have overridden the veto if they wanted.
He also criticized President Margvelashvili for vetoing the bill and said: “I regret very much that opinion of President… concurred with the one of the [UNM] parliamentary opposition.”
MP Saganelidze also said that he regretted there was “a disagreement within the coalition on serious principle issues.” He was referring to the fact that a day earlier MPs from the Free Democrats party, founded by Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, voted against extension of the deadline for four months. MP Saganelidze, however, also added that he respects Free Democrats’ position and those differences was demonstrating “democratic” nature of the GD ruling coalition.
Setting of the tight deadline for adopting a regulation that should address long-standing issue of security agencies’ unrestricted direct access to telecom operators’ servers, which allows them to carry out surveillance without any public oversight, does not mean those new provisions will go into force immediately from December 1. Although the bill might be adopted by that deadline, a later date will be set for its enforcement. The President has called on the Parliament to set “reasonable” timeframe.
GD MP Shalva Shavgulidze, deputy chairman of legal affairs committee, who was strongly in favor of extending the deadline for at least four months, said that it would be impossible to develop a good bill before December 1 and it would require further amendments before its enforcement.
This summer the Parliament passed package of legislative amendments setting tighter rules for the law enforcement agencies to carry out surveillance activities, including through introduction of higher standards of justification required for security agencies to obtain court warrant on surveillance, as well as through increasing authorities of the personal data protection inspector.
But legislators left key issue, involving security agencies’ unrestricted capabilities of direct access to telecommunications service providers’ networks, unaddressed. Adopted amendments set November 1, 2014 as deadline for adopting a law to address this issue. A working group was set up at the Parliament with the participation of MPs, government and civil society representatives to develop a bill. Persisting disagreements over what kind of arrangement should be introduced made it impossible to table an agreed joint bill by the November 1 deadline.
Debates center on the issue of who should have direct access – or ‘key’ as it has been dubbed – to telecommunication service providers’ servers.
The Interior Ministry argues that it should retain this ‘key’ to direct access and the office of personal data protection inspector should be empowered to provide oversight on the security agencies’ use of this capability.
Civil society organizations, among them Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Transparency International Georgia, which were engaged in the activities of the working group, established by the Parliament, have tabled a bill according to which the Interior Ministry should be deprived of direct access to telecom operators’ services and so called “two-key system” should be introduced, wherein one ‘key’ will be held by telecom operators themselves and another one by the judiciary; this latter, according to this proposal, will on the one hand decide whether to issue warrant on security agencies’ request for surveillance and in case of approval will also technically authorize telecom operators to carry out eavesdropping upon law enforcement agencies’ request. This proposal has been strongly criticized by PM Irakli Garibashvili, who backs the Interior Ministry’s position over this issue.