Protecting children or data: What to do against child pornography?

Brussels Pictures of abused children are flooding parts of the web. 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 cases, the question arises as to “whether we can do anything to counteract the massive amounts on offer 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, 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.

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. Last March, 47 organizations wrote a fiery letter 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 constitutional principles.

Jensen fears 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 primarily on protecting children.” In place of a law that could be overturned by a court, Jensen is calling for more prevention and better equipment for authorities.

Moritz Korner, Member of the European Parliament 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”. “Control of the chat would be mass surveillance for no reason.” Koerner also calls for better police equipment, the EU’s Europol authority 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 reported cases means that law enforcement agencies have been operating at breaking point for years. An EU Center against Child Abuse could “for example screen advance reports of child pornography 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. “So we consider random sweeps of encrypted communications to be disproportionate and ineffective.” The way in which the EU Commission’s proposal will proceed will likely also depend on the federal government. SPD, Greens, and FDP all promise a “right to crypto” in the coalition agreement.

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