EU to crack down on child abuse online

13 May 2022

On Wednesday, the European Commission adopted its new legislative proposal to prevent and combat child sexual abuse (CSA) online. The proposal is an opportunity to make a significant, long-lasting positive change in the fight against CSA in the EU – and globally, considering its cross-border nature. It has the potential to be a game changer by ensuring that tech giants, such as Meta, Google and Apple do their part by mandating them to detect, report and remove child sexual abuse online. In addition, the proposed legislation also aims to establish a Centre to prevent and combat child sexual abuse images.

What is highly disconcerting, is the fact that each human trafficking offence bears an online element; social media platforms have become a major marketplace for human trafficking in the last years. A 2020 US federal human trafficking report showed that 59% of online victim recruitment occurred on Facebook. More concerning, however, is the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on this growing issue. The Internet Watch foundation highlights a 64% increase in child sexual abuse reports in 2021 compared to 2020.

The legislation, which now needs the endorsement of the European Parliament and European Council, remains a top priority for the Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson who has been calling for mandatory detection in the form of active measures by companies to detect and take down content. On April 25, at an event organised by the child protection group WeProtect Global Alliance, Johansson noted that “there’s a mountain of undetected suffering underneath and if it’s voluntary, companies can change their policies whenever they like, which is why I want to make the detection of child sexual abuse mandatory.” Mandatory detection means that companies can expect fines if they do not report illegal material of child abuse or grooming to law enforcement agencies.

Additionally, the new CSA plan also proposes to set up an EU Centre, which will be based in the Hague and coordinated by Europol. The Centre will facilitate the work of companies in detection, reporting and removal of CSA online; enable law enforcement in following up with the report from companies; support Member States in prevention and assistance to victims; and coordinate with partners outside of the EU, given the global nature of these crimes and in working closely with similar centres around the world (e.g. US, Australia and Canada). It will also act as a hub of expertise for all aspects of prevention and victim support.

Looking ahead, two main issues of this new regulation will hinder a smooth transition to become law, namely that of encryption and privacy, with Meta having already slammed the proposal over its plans to circumvent end-to-end encryption. The proposal needs to ensure that detection, removal and reporting of child sexual abuse is possible, even if end-to-end encryption is put in place and takes into consideration children’s rights as well as people’s right to online privacy.