11th Dec 2023

EU privacy chief says child abuse bill will upend internet

  • A European Parliament study says there were more than 32 million reports of suspected online child sexual abuse in 2022 (Photo: Daria Nepriakhina)
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The European Commission's bill to curb online child sex abuse will fundamentally change the internet, says the EU's data protection chief, Wojciech Wiewiórowski.

The bill, known as the child sexual abuse materials or CSAM, has come under intense criticism from privacy rights advocates.

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They say it would erode encryption, inadvertently put children at greater risk of exploitation, and create a mass surveillance state where everyone is a suspect.

But Wiewiórowski on Monday (23 October) said the proposal in its current form would also "fundamentally change the internet and the digital communication, as we know it now."

Wiewiórowski is the European data protection supervisor (EDPS), an independent agency based in Brussels tasked to ensure European institutions and bodies respect peoples' right to privacy and data-protection.

At a seminar organised by the EDPS at the European Parliament, Wiewiórowski said the commission's proposal poses other problems, as well.

"I'm concerned that it questions the foundations [of privacy in a democratic society] which, once undermined, lead to the radical shift from which there might be no return," he said.

The 52 year-old Wiewiórowski also drew comparisons to the police state he experienced while growing up in his native Poland.

Meanwhile, others said that the CSAM proposal would not help fight online child pornography.

Among those is Arda Gerkens, who chairs the board of the Netherland's authority for the prevention of online terrorist content and child sexual abuse material.

"However illegal, a big part of the material that we're seeing is not a result of sexual abuse," she said, also at the EDPS seminar.

Instead, she said the standard form of child sex abuse material is more often found on image hosting websites, which are being used to spread the material via the Dark web.

And she said around 90 percent of the physical abuse is done by somebody the child knows.

"Scanning of private communication will certainly flag problematic situations. But it is not the solution to combat this sexual child abuse," she said, noting that leaked images are quite often the result of hacked accounts.

A better solution, says Gerkens, is to invest in existing law enforcement systems and strengthen cooperation between EU states.

Personal attacks

Presented in May last year, the commission says its proposal targets service providers online and hosting providers.

It would require firms like Signal and WhatsApp to detect, report and remove child sexual abuse material on their services. And it says a new independent EU centre would support EU states to prevent the crime.

But the debate around CSAM has also turned increasingly ugly and in some cases, personal.

Earlier this month, Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner in charge of CSAM, accused unnamed privacy advocates of misogynist and sexist abuse.

"The violence of their language perhaps undermines their attempts to portray themselves as the reasonable ones in this debate," she said.

On Wednesday, she is set to debate MEPs sitting in the European Parliament's civil liberties committee. Although not yet confirmed, the committee is set to vote on the proposal on 13 November.

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