9th Dec 2023

No mass scanning in EU online child-abuse bill, MEPs agree

  • One-in-five children in Europe are victims of some form of sexual violence online or in real life (Photo: Unsplash)
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A more balanced draft law to combat and prevent child sexual abuse online was adopted by the EU Parliament's justice committee on Tuesday (14 November).

With 51 votes in favour, two against, and one abstention, MEPs agreed on new mandatory rules for online services and hosting providers to improve the protection of children online while ensuring the privacy of internet users.

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"Under the parliament's version, only a judge will be able to order the scanning of private communications, and only for specific suspects," Czech MEP Marcel Kolaja (Pirate Party), one of the shadow rapporteurs of the file, stressed after the vote.

In May 2022, the EU Commission proposed legislation to harmonise requirements for service providers at EU level, making it mandatory for them to detect such content, report it to the authorities, and remove it from their platforms.

Since then, the EU executive's proposal has been repeatedy criticised by privacy advocates, who claim that these rules would further complicate law enforcement and open the door to indiscriminate mass monitoring tactics of all EU citizens.

"The commission is opening the door for a vast range of authoritarian surveillance tactics," Ella Jakubowska, of the Brussels-based European Digital Rights (EDRi) group, said when the proposal was announced.

The rules proposed by the EU executive could also lead to a very heavy workload for police, which could have a "negative impact" on law enforcement, according to a study seen by EUobserver in April 2023.

It is estimated that one-in-five children in Europe are victims of some form of sexual violence online or in real life, and more than 32 million reports of suspected child sexual abuse online represent an all-time high, according to the parliament's research unit.

And so far, voluntary detection and reporting of child sexual abuse material online has clearly not been enough to tackle the problem.

"All providers will have to assess if there is a risk of abuse in their services and mitigate those with tailor-made measures," said Spanish MEP Javier Zarzalejos (EPP).

MEPs opted to balance safety and privacy and agreed on targeted mitigating measures in order to avoid generalised monitoring in the search for suspicious content and indiscriminate scanning of private conversations and photos.

"As a last resort, detection orders can be used to take down abusive material still circulating on the internet," Zarzalejos added.

This way, competent authorities could track down and remove or disable access to any illegal material when mitigation measures are not effective.

MEPs also backed the creation of an independent EU child protection centre to help implement the new rules and support law enforcement.

The green light for inter-institutional negotiations was also given, subject to the Council's agreement on its position and the full parliament's backing of the committee's text at the forthcoming plenary session (20-23 November) in Strasbourg.

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