Brussels (Brussels Morning) Just two weeks ago, two men were convicted by a German court for having abused their daughter and niece for over five years, which neither girl was able to report.
However, with cooperation from the tech companies, the police eventually identified the victims. In recent years, cases of child sexual abuse online have skyrocketed: in the EU alone we have gone from 23,000 to 725,000, which include over 3 million images of child sexual abuse.
The current pandemic has further exacerbated the situation, and recent figures from Europol show a 25 percent increase of online child sexual abuse in some EU member states.
We know that tech companies, such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google, play an essential role in the fight against child sexual abuse online and represents a compelling success-case of private-public cooperation, as often reported by law-enforcement.
This cooperation has proven extremely successful and helped those agencies rescue children. Now, an important step towards protecting children online is being threatened by the left wing parties and the Greens within the European Parliament.
The European Commission adopted a proposal that would see certain parts of the ePrivacy Directive, namely to allow number-independent interpersonal communication services continue to make use of technologies to detect child sexual abuse and report it to the public authorities.
I am deeply worried by the specious language used by the Rapporteur, MEP Birgit Sippel (Germany, S&D), in her Draft Report to the LIBE Committee.
When talking about a targeted, limited and a specific derogation to certain provisions of the ePrivacy Directive, the title of this legislation within four lines of text shows it is as targeted and specific as possible – instead, she speaks about restrictions and interference.
I find it particularly dangerous that she has deleted the reference to grooming from the Commission proposal, excluding a core part of the original text. It is honestly outrageous that some of my colleagues would raise privacy arguments to diminish safeguards and protection for children, whose images and videos of their abuse are freely circulating online – creating distress and enormous trauma for the victims at each new visualization by a stranger online.
Last 15 October, at the expert meeting convened by the European Parliament Intergroup on Children’s Rights, a survivor of child sexual abuse, Rhiannon McDonald – now working as subject matter expert for the Marie Collins Foundation, said: “I was walking down the streets in constant fear that some stranger might have stumbled upon my own topless images, reminder of the abuse suffered when I was a child”.
I find it completely unacceptable that the victim’s perspective is missing in all 57 amendments of the Rapporteur’s draft. While plenty of amendments and words were poured in detailing what should happen in the remote, marginal case of someone being wrongly accused, no reference whatsoever is given to children, whose privacy is violated and whose innocence was lost through their exploitation.
I hold that we should be faithful to the original purpose of the Interim legislation and stick to the protection of children by emphasising that the technological tools deployed by online services providers to detect child sexual abuse online are not privacy-intrusive.
I think it is important to set the record straight and shift the narrative to its original point: safety of children online and therefore putting forward a victim-centered approach by allowing companies to continue to make use of advanced tools – such as hashing and anti-grooming technology – so that victims can be identified and their perpetrators brought to justice.
I want to emphasise that privacy is very important, but once again, this is not the issue here.
To Birgit Sippel and my other left-wing colleagues who excuse their position claiming privacy and data protection concerns as their reason, I ask: do they fear their privacy is being violated when they use anti-spam in their computers?
Because it is anti-grooming technology being used within anti-spam. So, I wonder, who could argue that the former is more privacy-intrusive than the latter, and yet I have never heard any of my colleagues complaining about their anti-spam filters.
Anti-grooming technology does not read the content of the conversion; it can only identify patterns and key words – to a high degree of accuracy – likely to indicate grooming.
Also, we must also say that the anti-grooming technology is the only tool that actually works as a preventive measures by allowing law-enforcement authorities to intervene before the abuse is consumed, therefore rescuing children from an imminent danger of sexual abuse and exploitation.
As co-chair of the Intergroup on Children’s Rights, which works cross-politically, I will do my utmost to make sure that we keep the reference to grooming in the Parliament Draft Report.
The fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation, both online and offline, requires a global response, as these heinous crimes know no border, as well as a multi-stakeholder approach.
If we do not adopt the Interim Regulation before the EEC enters into force, tech companies will no longer be allowed to make use of technologies to detect child sexual abuse online, setting us back at least 15 years, wiping away all efforts (and consolidated cooperation) of the interpersonal communications services providers and law-enforcement authorities that have proven successful in saving children’s lives and rescuing them from ongoing abuses.
The EPP will stand behind the Commission proposal. So, now, the hope of strong protection mechanisms of children online is in the hands of Renew Europe and the left-wing parties, where I hope many will choose to side with children.
The entire world is watching us: let us make the right decision for children and approve the Commission proposal in its original text. If we do, we would create a world-unique legislation that will protect children for years to come. That is, above all, our responsibility both as politicians and human beings.