Could you please tell us about your research at the EUI?
My PhD dissertation explores the role of online service providers – such as Google or Meta – in criminal law enforcement. My research started from the observation that EU law imposes a growing number of duties on online service providers, which functionally contribute to the enforcement of criminal law. The EU's Digital Services Act is the most well-known example, but many others can be found across sectoral legislation. As such, online service providers must, for instance, prevent the spread of terrorist content on their platforms or share user data with investigating authorities in the context of criminal proceedings.
This phenomenon fascinates me for several reasons. Firstly, we see many new interferences with fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression or data protection, but also procedural issues related to the right to a fair trial or access to justice. Secondly, this phenomenon is part of a broader shift in enforcement responsibilities from public authorities to private actors. This trend is not limited to criminal law but affects many other legal areas as well.
My dissertation aims to map the new enforcement landscape through an analysis of the new channels of public-private cooperation, which have been created with the ongoing EU reforms. My research relies on case studies from the areas of digital evidence and content moderation, which are supplemented with expert interviews. I ultimately wish to contribute to answering the broader question of how criminal law enforcement is changing in the digital age. At the same time, I hope that my research can help in understanding the role of private actors in criminal law enforcement, and how this impacts fundamental rights protection.
Where and why have you done a traineeship in the context of your research?
After completing my second year of the EUI's PhD programme, I decided to apply for a five-month traineeship at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. I could benefit from this possibility thanks to an agreement between the EUI and the ECtHR.
My main motivation to pursue this traineeship was to gain practical experience in human rights law, to have a first work experience at a court, and ultimately get some inspiration for my research. Since the EU reforms that I study for my dissertation have only recently been adopted or are still being negotiated, there is very limited EU case law on them. For my thesis, I therefore draw from case law of the ECtHR on related issues, such as surveillance measures or digital evidence. For example, during my time in Strasbourg, the Grand Chamber of the Court handed down a judgment regarding convictions of terrorism in Turkey which were decisively based on the use of a messaging application by the accused. Although this judgment is not directly relevant for my case studies, it shows how the ECtHR assesses convictions based on digital evidence stored by service providers – which is, in turn, relevant to understand the broader implications of my research.
What did you work on during your traineeship and what was memorable?
During my time at the ECtHR, I was a trainee in the private office of President Síofra O'Leary and was supervised by her legal adviser Kresimir Kamber. The judicial work of the President is more limited than that of the other judges. The President spends a large part of her time representing the Court at various events. Her predecessor, Judge Robert Spano, has referred to this part of the President's role as 'judicial diplomacy'. My work, therefore, related more often to policy than to the judicial work of the Court: drafting speeches, writing memoranda on specific legal issues, and supporting the President's team in preparing for different events. I found it very refreshing to immerse myself in this practical work. Thanks to this experience, I have learnt a lot about human rights law and gained confidence in my legal and drafting skills.
During my time at the ECtHR, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of Grand Chamber hearings. A real highlight was the hearing in the Duarte Agostinho case, which is one of the first ECtHR cases on climate change and human rights law. I was also present at a couple of committee meetings at the Council of Europe, on issues such as prisoners' rights and gender equality. These meetings touched on many issues that are of academic and personal interest to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting a glimpse of the policy side of the Council of Europe system.
I also worked with other trainees, many of which were visiting the Court in the context of their postgraduate studies or PhD research. I was also lucky to share an office with two seconded judges who welcomed me very warmly and were incredibly helpful especially in the first period, when I had many questions about the functioning of the Court.
Moreover, the ECtHR provides a variety of trainings for newcomers. For example, I attended trainings delivered by senior lawyers of the Court on the role of the Grand Chamber and on different Convention rights. These trainings were great to refresh my knowledge of human rights law and helped me hit the ground running.
Finally, I very much appreciated that my supervisor encouraged me to give a presentation at the criminal law ‘knowledge sharing’ group of the Court. This presentation allowed me to get some visibility for my research and led to some interesting discussions about my PhD thesis. Although I was technically on a break from my PhD research, the traineeship turned out to be a very fruitful experience during which many of my ideas regarding my dissertation matured.
How has being a researcher at the EUI facilitated your experience?
I was able to do this traineeship thanks to the EUI's agreement with the ECtHR. The EUI Law Department has, in fact, a series of exchange agreements with different institutions, including the ECtHR. Every year, the EUI selects one researcher who will be sent to the Court for a duration of five months. This traineeship opportunity is still new at the EUI; I was only the second researcher to benefit from it.
On a practical level, the selected researcher has to request some time off from work at the EUI Law Department. During the traineeship, however, the researcher still gets paid by the EUI at the level of a fourth-year grant. I therefore did not lose any time or funding which otherwise would have gone towards my PhD.
This traineeship is also a great opportunity for those who would like to do fieldwork at the Court or organise interviews with judges and other experts at the Council of Europe bodies. Finally, the traineeship gives you access to the Court's specialised library, which is another great resource for Law researchers.
In February, I will return to my research and pick up where I left off, with renewed motivation and inspired by the experiences I had during my time in Strasbourg.
Valerie Albus is a researcher at the EUI Department of Law. Valerie’s PhD thesis will be on ‘Private Executive Power. Online Service Providers as Actors in the EU’s Area of Criminal Justice’.
Learn more about how to apply for the EUI Doctoral Programme in Law.