28th Sep 2023

EU bill to fight child sex abuse may overload police, finds study

  • Children with disabilities face an even higher risk of experiencing sexual violence
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Proposed EU legislation to tackle child sex abuse may end up making it more difficult to tackle the crime, says a new European Parliament study.

"The study does not question the need for the protection of children against sexual abuse in any way," professor Bart Preneel of KU Leuven, a university in Belgium and co-author of the study, told MEPs sitting in the civil liberties committee on Thursday (13 April).

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Instead, he said the European Commission's proposal for a regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse, may instead lead to unintended consequences.

The new rules would require online service and hosting providers to detect the risk of potential abusive material. But this may end up overloading police with bogus reports, says the draft 140-page study, which has yet to be published but was seen by EUobserver.

The study further notes current technology is unable to detect with high accuracy new child abuse content and grooming.

"This will create a very large workload for law enforcement," said Preneel.

That workload, coupled with increased error rates, "will negatively impact the ability of law enforcement authorities to investigate CSAM [child sexual abuse material]," says the study.

Preneel also warned of a chilling effect, noting that some parents had gotten into trouble for having sent pictures of their children to doctors.

The study also said criminals will likely move to the dark and deep web to avoid being targeted by measures outlined in the European Commission's proposal.

And it queries the commission's starting premise, that different rules among EU states weakens cooperation between public authorities and providers of information society services. "The soundness of this logic may be questioned," notes the study.

Instead, the research paper says national legal frameworks might actually improve cooperation between public authorities and providers of information society services on the national level.

A number of MEPs are pressing for changes. Among them is Moritz Korner, a German MEP with Renew Europe, who said technology used to detect grooming is currently only available in English.

"If it's only working in English, how can you possibly conclude that you suggest this be a law for the whole of Europe," he said.

Pirate party MEP Patrick Breyer, speaking on behalf of the Greens, said the proposal would lead to an indiscriminate scanning of private conversations and photos.

"A flood of mostly false suspicious activity reports would make effective investigations more difficult, criminalise children en masse and fail to bring the abusers and producers of such material to justice," he said, in an statement.

Data privacy campaigners have made similar observations in the past and accused the commission of opening the door to a vast range of authoritarian surveillance tactics.

Fears have emerged that the governments may end up using the methods proposed in the commission's regulation to also crack down on dissent or political opposition.

For its part, the commission says the proposal will make Europe the global leader in the fight against child sexual abuse online.

That includes setting up an independent EU centre to fight sexual abuse, linked to the EU's police agency Europol. Service providers, once they receive a detection order, would then have to report it to the EU centre.

The commission says the EU centre, in turn, would then assess whether it should be forwarded to law enforcement. The commission also says that the EU hosts some 90 percent of global online child sex abuse content.

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