3rd Dec 2023

Tone-deaf EU letter ups tension on child-abuse law

  • 'There's been a shocking lack of willingness to engage with legitimate criticism,' said Ella Jakubowska, a senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based European Digital Right
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Acrimony over a European Commission bill to detect child sexual abuse online continues to mount, as EU officials brush away critical views of rights defenders.

The tension follows a recent letter by EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson refuting reports that Thorn, a Hollywood-backed tech firm, had undue influence and stood to earn a lot of money on the back of a new law to prevent and combat child sexual abuse (CSA).

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  • EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson has blamed Big Tech and 'sensationalist' media for raising doubts about the proposal (Photo: European Union, 2022)

Instead, Johansson blamed Big Tech lobbying, as well as "sensationalist media", for raising doubt that her 2022 proposal would erode privacy rights and introduce mass surveillance by requiring digital platforms to scan the private communications of potentially all of their users.

She also insisted that civil society organisations dealing with privacy rights and academics had been consulted, amid fears the CSA would erode democracy and false flag innocent people without actually helping child abuse victims.

"The commission conducted extensive consultations with a wide variety of stakeholders for two years during the preparation of the proposal," Johansson said in her letter earlier this week, addressed to the chair of the European Parliament's civil-liberties committee (Libe), Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar.

Aguilar, a Spanish socialist MEP, had demanded her comment following an investigation by media outlet BalkanInsights into influence peddling on CSA that listed Thorn among a slew of lobbyists with special access to Johansson.

Co-founded by Hollywood stars Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Thorn describes itself as anti-sex-trafficking tech company. In September, Kutcher resigned from the firm after defending a fellow actor imprisoned for rape.

'Rejected every time'

Johansson's letter has since provoked further outrage for claiming Big Tech was trying to muscle its way into tweaking the bill against the interests of children.

"Contrary to the appearance she tries to create, only Thorn was provided with access to top commissioners and [EU Commission] president [Ursula] von der Leyen, certainly not civil society," said Patrick Breyer, a German MEP and member of the Pirate Party, in a statement.

His comment was corroborated by the Brussels-based European Digital Rights (EDRi), a network collective of non-profits working on the issue.

"We've tried to meet with the commissioner and been rejected every time. We've met with some of her staff, but the commissioner herself would not meet with us," said the EDRi's Ella Jakubowska.

"There's been a shocking lack of willingness to engage with legitimate criticism," she added.

And Jakubowska said she was "horrified" by Johansson's letter for claiming it was Big Tech that had opposed her CSA proposal.

Instead, Jakubowska said there was an "incredibly wide range of stakeholders" who opposed her bill.

This opposition included privacy-rights defenders, some child-rights defenders, as well as certain police forces, she said.

"In the offline world, if police want a warrant to search your home to seize your devices they have to have a warrant. It should be the same principle online," Jakubowska said.

There were also better ways to combat child sexual abuse, she added.

She said police were often understaffed, noting that only four people were officially designated in Slovenia to combat the crime, and one in Estonia's home affairs ministry, for instance.

An EU directive from 2011 to create a legal framework on which perpetrators can be prosecuted still hasn't been implemented by some member states, she noted.

And in France, a report into abuse in the Roman Catholic church found that they were "not systematically screening for possible criminal records of people who work with children."

Critical voices

Other critical voices included independent watchdogs, such as the the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).

The EDPS warned Johansson's proposal could become the basis for de facto generalised and indiscriminate scanning of content.

Lawyers at the council, representing member states, have cast doubts due to it risks in undermining encryption and the right to privacy.

And over the summer, almost 500 tech scientists and researchers warned that scanning technologies used to detect child sex abuse were deeply flawed.

"This will have a chilling effect on society and is likely to negatively affect democracies across the globe," they said.

Neither the European Parliament or the EU Council, representing member states, have reached their individual positions in order to launch negotiations on the final wording of the bill.

Although not officially scheduled yet, there may be a vote in the council near the end of the month.

The European Parliament's Libe committee is set to vote on 26 October, following several delays.

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