11th Dec 2023

Commission child sex abuse law enrages privacy advocates

  • Children with disabilities face an even higher risk of experiencing sexual violence, says the EU commission
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The European Commission has unveiled new rules to tackle online child sex abuse — but faced immediate blowback from privacy advocates.

The proposal presented on Wednesday (11 May) would require online service and hosting providers to detect the risk of potential abusive material.

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Those risks would then be reviewed by a national authority, who may order the provider to detect and report the child sex abuse.

A new EU agency, set to become fully operational in eight years, would also be tasked to make sure so-called false flags are not sent to the police.

But critics say the safeguards are cosmetic and the new rules could potentially undermine end-to-end encryption and usher in authoritarian-like surveillance.

Among them is Ella Jakubowska of the Brussels-based European Digital Rights (EDRi) group.

"The European Commission is opening the door for a vast range of authoritarian surveillance tactics," she said, in a statement.

Jakubowska warned governments may end up using the methods proposed in the commission's regulation to also crack down on dissent or political opposition.

The Pegasus-spy scandal demonstrated that some governments are prepared to go to such lengths given the Israeli-made software reportedly ensnared journalists and opposition politicians in the EU.

But EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said the regulation was needed given the scale of online child sex abuse.

She cited a 6,000 percent increase of online child sexual abuse content in the EU over the past ten years.

"The content that has been growing the most is those that includes children between seven and 10 years old," she told reporters in Brussels.

Johansson speculated the increase was due, in part, to paedophile rings requiring members to produce new material in order to watch the old.

This includes in the US where Johansson said some 50 percent of shared material in criminal investigations involves babies and toddlers.

"We have also seen an increase in grooming, especially during the pandemic," she said.

Johansson also referenced the EU's electronic privacy rules, noting that companies use it to detect spam and malware.

"I'm now proposing that they should also be allowed to do the detection for child sexual abuse material," she said.

Missing Children Europe, an NGO, welcomed the proposal, noting that some 60 percent of online child sexual abuse is hosted on servers based in the EU. They estimate one-in-five children in Europe become victims of sexual abuse.

All this has to first pass the co-legislators in the Council and the European Parliament before it becomes EU-wide law.

The commission had already in 2020 proposed temporary legislation allowing providers like Facebook Messenger to scan messages for suspicious text and images.

The European Parliament then, last July, agreed to those voluntary measures. Now the commission's proposal seeks to make them permanent and mandatory.

But some European lawmakers are not happy. One long-standing critic is left-wing German MEP Patrick Breyer.

"This plan is nothing other than terrorism against our digital fundamental rights, which I will not relent to fight," said Breyer, in a statement.

German liberal MEP Moritz Körner drew similar conclusions.

"If the commission got away with this proposal, the privacy of digital correspondence would be dead," he told Bloomberg news.

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