Pictures of abused children are flooding parts of the Internet. The number of recorded images of sexual assault in Germany rose more than 100 percent year on year in 2021 to nearly 40,000. “Europe is now a hub for deliberating the depiction of abuses,” says federal abuse officer Kirsten Klaus of the German news agency. If you look at the increase in issues, the question arises as to ‘whether we can still do anything to counter the massive amounts being viewed on the Internet’.
The European Union Commission wants to give it a try and is expected to introduce a legislative proposal in midweek to combat the portrayal of sexual assault online. But to what extent does a good cause justify interference in the private communications of citizens?
The current temporary solution expires after three years
Facebook, Google, and Co voluntarily scanned their users’ private messages for a description of the abuse until December 2020. They searched for known images from previous investigations that were provided with a type of digital fingerprint, a so-called hash. Visits were made to the American Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) where they were examined and, if necessary, sent to authorities such as the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). But as of the end of 2020, the legal basis for this was temporarily missing in the European Union. According to NCMEC, the number of tips is down 58 percent.
That is why the EU countries and the European Parliament agreed about a year ago on a temporary solution that will expire after three years at the latest. Since then, the platforms have been allowed to scan their users’ messages for hashtags again. Now, however, revelations about so-called grooming also fall within the rules, which means adults approach children on the Internet. EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson wants to propose a permanent solution this week.
There may be an obligation to search for companies
Details of the proposal are still unclear. However, Johansson has been pointing the way for a long time. She told Welt am Sonntag in January that she would propose a law that would “require companies to identify, report and remove child sexual abuse”. It is questionable, among other things, whether this obligation is limited to known representations. Grooming tracking can also become mandatory in some form. The Commission is also likely to propose the creation of an EU center to combat child abuse. Then EU countries and the European Parliament negotiate the proposals.
“Controlling the chat would be mass surveillance for no reason”
Civil rights activists are concerned. In March, 47 organizations wrote a Fire Letter (PDF) to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Interior Commissioner Johansson. The Digitale Gesellschaft association, to which Tom Jensen is affiliated, is also signed. And he warns that in the future companies could scan every message sent via WhatsApp. He told dpa that this was “a very massive and disproportionate interference in communications” and goes against all principles of the rule of law.
Jensen worries that even encrypted communications could be interfered with on the basis of public suspicion. On the other hand, Johansson has already made it clear what’s weighing her down: Of course, data protection and encryption are important, she told “Welt am Sonntag”. “But the focus should be on protecting children first and foremost.” Jensen, rather than a law that could be overturned by a court, is demanding more prevention and better equipment for the authorities.
Moritz Körner, MEP and Socialist Party, also stresses that the fight against child pornography should not be misused as an excuse “to justify the unprecedented destruction of our privacy”. “Controlling the chat would amount to mass surveillance for no reason.” Koerner also calls for better equipment for the police, the EU authority Europol and more cooperation between EU countries.
Supporters rely on technology against online publishing
For example, the U.S. Child Protection Thorne Foundation has a comprehensive liquidation obligation. Thorn develops its own filters that not only find known abuse substances, but also new ones. The foundation is also working on a grooming detection tool. “Companies should be legally authorized to use targeted digital technologies to stop the viral dissemination of child sexual abuse material on their platforms,” Thorne said.
Abuse Commissioner Klaus welcomes the fact that the EU Commission’s proposal will create a binding legal framework for exchange and cooperation between EU countries. The large number of cases reported means that law enforcement agencies have been operating at breaking point for years. An EU Center against Child Abuse could “pre-screen reports of child pornography, for example, and then distribute them to relevant EU countries for criminal prosecution”. “Not only will this relax member states, but it will also make the work more efficient, speed up prosecutions, and thus allow more cases to be successfully completed in the future.”
Even the Child Protection Society is critical of interfering with encrypted messages. “Encrypted communications hardly play a role in the dissemination of abuse images,” Joachim Türk of the Federal Council tells dpa. “Therefore we consider random sweeps of encrypted communications to be disproportionate and ineffective.” What happens after the European Commission’s proposal will also depend on the federal government. The SPD, the Greens, and the Freedom and Justice Party all promised a “right to code” in the coalition agreement.