Children’s rights advocates are worried that online child sexual abuse could become harder to detect due to privacy protections set to take effect in the European Union next month, putting millions of children at increased risk worldwide.
The European Electronic Communications Code will ban tech firms like Facebook and Microsoft from using automatic detection tools that are routinely employed to identify material containing images of child abuse, or to detect online grooming.
Opponents say such automatic scanning infringes the privacy of people using chat and messaging apps, but the looming ban has drawn strong criticism from children’s rights advocates.
“Online child sexual abuse is a borderless crime,” Chloe Setter, head of policy at WePROTECT Global Alliance – a nonprofit that fights child exploitation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Europe is already host to the vast majority of known child sexual abuse material on the internet, but victims and perpetrators can be anywhere. The restriction of automated detection tools in Europe would have major implications for children globally,” she said.
Set to come into force on Dec. 20, the code would prevent law enforcement and child protection agencies from identifying millions of child sexual abuse cases each year – not just in the 27-member state EU, but globally.
Sex offenders in European countries use social media platforms to contact children around the world with the aim of grooming them, said Dorothea Czarnecki, vice chair of ECPAT Germany, an alliance of 28 children’s rights institutions.
Some use translation apps to communicate with victims in countries as far afield as Vietnam, she said.
Opponents of the new directive also fear that banning detection tools in Europe could prompt tech firms to stop using them elsewhere, because they have global teams to moderate content.
“If a company in the EU stops using this technology overnight they would stop using it all over the world,” said Emilio Puccio, coordinator of the European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights.
The tools have proven highly effective at tackling online abuse and tech companies provide law enforcement authorities with about two thirds of the child sexual abuse reports they receive, children’s rights campaigners say.
Facebook, Microsoft and Google did not respond to requests for comment.
In 2019, the U.S.-based non-profit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received 16.9 million reports from technology companies related to suspected online child sexual exploitation.
If the directive is approved, the ban would cover anti-grooming tools used to detect suspicious activity and “classifier” tools, which help identify pictures and videos that are not already in a database of illegal content.
Leftist members of the European Parliament led by German Socialist Birgit Sippel led the push to ban the use of automatic scanning, arguing that the way the tools are currently used violates privacy and data protection rights.
They were particularly concerned that users of chat and other communication platforms could have the content of private conversations analysed.
But MEP Hilde Vautmans said anti-grooming technology uses the same mechanisms as spam or malware filters, so poses no greater threat to privacy.
“We use these technologies to protect our computers, and we should be able to continue to use the same technologies to protect our own children from sexual abuse,” she said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)