Should tech companies, online digital platforms and social networks continue to apply end-to-end encryption on their platforms to protect the privacy of their users
should they be obliged to apply tools that disclose user data in the name of child safety online?
The choice sounds impossible, but the truth is that current GDPR policies and data/behaviour privacy provide ample scope for untraceable and unpunished distribution of child sexual abuse content (CSAM) as well as grooming behaviour. Because of data protection regulations, online child abuse remains impossible to track, detect, prove and prosecute.
The issue is gaining prominence in Europe. On 19 September, young people, child rights organisations, and other advocates from across the EU marched on Brussels to ask EU leaders to ‘clean up the internet’ from sexual predators and protect children online. In a defiant stunt to capture the attention of EU decision-makers, a coalition took to the streets to show support for the proposed EU Regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse. Under the slogan “Child Safety ON”, activists called on EU leaders to use their political power to pass relevant laws. The proposal mainly concerns the so-called end-to-end encryption (E2EE) and includes:
- Introducing an obligation for providers to detect, report, block and remove child sexual abuse material from their services, thus improving detection, investigation and prosecution of offences under the Child Sexual Abuse Directive. The proposed legislation complements the new European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children, which aims to create safe digital experiences for children and to promote digital empowerment.
- The establishment of a European Centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse (‘the EU Centre’) that works closely with Europol. It will receive the reports from providers, check them to avoid reporting obvious false positives and forward them to Europol as well as to national law enforcement authorities.
The increased action in Brussels and Europe to advocate for the above legislative changes comes after new Eurobarometer data showed that Europeans broadly and strongly support the drive to protect children online, but see no clear tools to do so:
- 92% agree that children are increasingly at risk online.
- 82% agree that tools like parental control are not enough to keep children safe online
- 78% support or strongly support the Commission’s proposal to fight child sexual abuse
Across Europe, over 100 young people, child abuse survivors, celebrities, academics and child safety experts have come together to sign an open letter calling for EU lawmakers to pass the European Commission’s CSA proposal. Notable open letter signatories include Swedish supermodel Elsa Hosk, former Dutch international footballer Dennis Bergkamp, internationally acclaimed Irish actor Jessie Buckley, and French movie star Ludivine Sagnier.
Nearly 500,000 European citizens have signed the petition of the Child Safety ON movement, which is backed by more than 40 children’s rights organisations, including Child Helpline International (116 111), the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, the BRAVE Movement, as well as Ecpat and EuroChild, of which the National Network for Children is a member. The petition demands the urgent adoption of the requested changes, citing a number of worrying figures.
A recent survey conducted by ECPAT International member organisations across the EU found that there is widespread public support for the European Union to introduce longer-term legislation that will protect children online. As technology companies continue to use end-to-end encryption on their platforms for user privacy, it is crucial that they are required to implement the necessary tools and features to keep children safe:
- 73% of adults believing children cannot go online without being approached by adults looking to harm them.
- 76% of adults indicated a willingness to compromise some of their own personal privacy online to allow for automated technology tools to scan and detect images of child sexual abuse and detect other forms of sexual exploitation of children.
- Most agree that regulating online spaces with the best interest of children is essential to ensuring their safety online.
This is why ECPAT believes it is high time to put the protection of children from sexual abuse at the heart of the EU’s digital policies. All of ECPAT’s nearly 40 member organisations, including the National Network for Children, are backing proposed legislation to require online service providers to prevent, detect, report and eliminate online child sexual abuse. They also support the creation of an EU Centre for the Prevention and Combating of Child Sexual Abuse, where child rights specialists, technical experts, survivors and law enforcement would work together to tackle this crime.
Here is more from a European Parliament document.
Children are increasingly using the internet. Global estimates reveal that one in three children is an internet user, and that one in three internet users is under 18 years of age. Children are also increasingly accessing the internet from mobile devices.Moreover, younger children have no problem bypassing the age requirements of being a user of a social platform. According to the United States’ National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), over 32 million reports of suspected child sexual abuse online were received in 2022, making it a record year (up 47 % from two years earlier). These include a wide range of activities such as disseminating child sexual abuse material (CSAM), online grooming of children, and other types of abuse. When looking at the age groups, less than 2 % of reports mentioned children older than 13 years, while 98 % of reports mentioned children younger than that. There was an 82% increase in reports of online child grooming, with some having a fatal outcome. NCMEC partially attributes this increase to ‘financial sextortion’, a crime in which kids are approached online and targeted to share explicit photos and then threatened by offenders that they will share the images with the child’s friends, family or others if they do not give the blackmailer money. In early 2023, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies issued a global warning about the rise in financial sextortion cases using fake accounts to approach minors on digital platforms and apps and coerce them into sending explicit self-generated CSAM. This trend is expected to worsen with the use of AI such as ChatGPT. To avoid this, some digital companies are already using different types of technology and AI to detect CSAM and child online grooming; examples include Roblox, Twitch, Yubo and Meta, but the measures seem insufficient.
You can support the #ChildSafetyON! movement by following their causes online and by signing the petition for legislative changes to be adopted by the European Parliament.
Image source: https://ecpat.org/