The European Commissioner for the Interior, Ylva Johansson, has set herself the mission over the coming months to carry out the directive against online child sexual abuse. The regulation, which seeks to force Internet companies to review communications to detect abuse of minors, has alarmed part of the technology sector and digital rights groups, which have accused Johansson and some Member States of wanting to employ regulations to break Internet encryption and create cracks for espionage. The European political course that takes off strongly this week is decisive for the directive. If it does not materialize this semester, during the Spanish presidency of the Council of the EU, it will be difficult for it to move forward.
“It is clear that there are strong companies that do not want to submit to regulation or address the debate between privacy and security. I think there has to be a balance,” Johansson emphatically remarks in an interview during a recent trip to Madrid with other commissioners. “In the online world there is a tendency to see things in black and white, privacy is a fundamental right, but we must also find a balance regarding the privacy of these children who are victims of abuse,” launches the Swedish social democrat (Huddinge, 1964 ). “There is some misunderstanding that children can protect themselves. They cannot and we have a moral obligation to do so,” she says.
A group of engineers from 33 countries, including some renowned ones, have mobilized against the directive. They maintain that the regulation, in practice and with the information “scanning” technology available, would mean installing “espionage software” on the mobile phones of EU citizens, they say in an open letter. Johansson contradicts that argument and points out that these critics, through technical hypotheses and speculation, seek to “undermine” the effective interventions that the directive seeks to combat child abuse on the Internet. The open platform he opened a few weeks ago also stung particularly in the sector. “I have hope that the directive will move forward, but the debate is really hard and uncomfortable,” Johansson acknowledges. “And it is vital to raise your voice for children,” he adds.
Now, the identification of materials on the Internet that involve child sexual abuse is voluntary and is done through regulations that expire in the summer of 2024. Hence Johansson’s acceleration. There is no regulation in the EU that imposes such detection. And that is what the board wants. Detection is the only way to start investigations in many cases, says Johansson, since minors are very often afraid to speak out. “There is a responsibility of companies,” she emphasizes.
Johansson does not point to any specific technology and talks about formulas that are as least intrusive as possible. “This technology would act as an anti-drug dog: the dog is authorized to enter a post office or to check personal belongings in airports and public places and you accept it,” explains the commissioner, who proposes what she calls “neutral technology ”. “Imposing a specific technology would instantly date the proposal and render it obsolete,” she says. “Denying the ability to use available technologies is sending perpetrators across the continent a ‘go ahead’ message. They will be able to operate with virtual impunity,” adds the Swede.
“In my proposal it would also be mandatory for companies to do a risk assessment, mitigation measures and scan (the information) if necessary,” says Johansson. “Most companies want to cooperate, but there are also some that discuss it, that say they have no responsibility whatsoever. I will not mention specific companies, some do not do it today either and they are very aggressive,” he states.
The regulation also includes the creation of a specialized European center to fight online child abuse, which coordinates and works with companies and Member States. “I am considering whether we should put in place an advisory board with victims, survivors, who are linked to the center, because I think their voices are rarely heard, and we should listen to them. They should have more visibility,” says the Swedish social democrat.
One in five children, victim
“It is incredible that we still do not have regulation in the EU on online child abuse. “I feel like a pioneer with this proposal,” says Johansson. “People understand the atrocity of crime, but not the volume,” she remarks. The Council of Europe estimates that one in five children has been a victim of some type of sexual abuse and studies indicate that most of the time the aggressor is someone close to them. Although these estimates have not been updated for a long time and there is hardly any data on online abuse. Johansson says the Internet has worsened its spread.
96% of Europeans believe that detection is more or as important as the right to online privacy.
The horror of child sexual abuse #online is all-too-real for thousands of children.
This is why we need #EUvsChildSexualAbuse legislation.
Details about @EurobarometerEU survey 👇
— EU Home Affairs (@EUHomeAffairs) September 3, 2023
The European head of the Interior, one of the most powerful commissioners of the Community Executive of Ursula von der Leyen, explains that last year some 1.5 million reports from Internet companies were received in the EU, collecting five million videos and photos and grooming activities (when an adult contacts a minor to gain their trust and then engage them in sexual activity). Of them, 70% came from private communications, 20% from chats and 10% from open areas, according to Johansson. “Based on these studies we rescue at least one child every three days. And then you hear an argument that says, ‘What about my privacy.’ Just imagine those photos and videos of the worst moments of your life floating around out there. This is also a privacy issue,” she reiterates.
Johansson talks about the “pedophile manuals” that can be found on the Internet. “Contents that explain how to penetrate an eight-month-old baby or how to contact a four-year-old boy, what kind of technology to use or how not to be detected. These types of pedophile manuals are directly criminalized in a few Member States, but it is time to consider whether they should be criminalized at the EU level or what kind of restrictions should be applied at the European level ”, she points out.
The directive is now in the process of debate and the European Parliament – which begins the course with a large plenary session this Monday – and the European Council are finalizing their positions. “That’s why we are in a moment of extreme importance,” says Johansson. “I have a lot of confidence in the Spanish Presidency and, personally, in Fernando Grande-Marlaska (the Spanish Minister of the Interior), who is very involved in the matter,” he says. Spain, along with Finland and Ireland, is one of the countries in favor of the directive. Others, like Germany, do not support it with the privacy argument. Poland believes that it is not necessary. “There is a huge lack of knowledge about the enormity of these crimes and their consequences, how common they are and how many children are approached each day online. “We cannot continue without adequate legislation on this matter.”
“There are Member States that are not providing sufficient support to victims and survivors,” says the Home Affairs Commissioner. “One of the objectives for the new course must be to work on the technologies that must be supported for detection, because there must be a decision by a judge and specific technology that is as least intrusive as possible, but at the same time provide support to the Member States also to support the victims,” he says.
With the data in hand, a majority of European citizens support the directive, according to a Eurobarometer survey from a few weeks ago. And concern about this type of abuse is growing: 73% of Europeans consider this abuse to be a widespread or very widespread problem; 92% believe it is a growing problem.
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