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The European Commission has proposed legislation to combat child sexual abuse, which has sparked a debate in Sweden. Without new legislation in place by August 2024, it will be illegal for tech companies to proactively search for abuse material on their platforms. The fight against sexual abuse of children online is on the verge of being lost and therefore Childhood wants the children’s perspective – the right to integrity and not to be subjected to sexual abuse – to be given more space in the debate.
Child sexual abuse must be combatted
In recent weeks, a large number of Swedish commentators have noted that an important legislative proposal is being discussed in the EU. The proposal aims to prevent child sexual abuse online but contains elements that are perceived as too far-reaching. The debate is centered on the integrity of adults, while the integrity of children, and their right not to be sexually exploited online and have pictures and videos of the abuse shared on the internet, is barely mentioned. This is against the background of the fact that we live in a reality where we are losing the fight against sexual abuse of children online.
The integrity of both adults and children needs to be defended. The problem is highly complex and requires us to find a solution that also takes into account the consequences of not taking action. The bill is being presented due to the fact that current EU legislation expires in August 2024. If a new law is not in place before then, it will be illegal for tech companies to proactively search for sexual abuse on their platforms. The EU risks becoming a safe haven for sharing and committing child sexual abuse online.
Demand is both massive and elusive
Recently, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) released its annual report. The IWF is a UK hotline, where members of the public and businesses report images and videos documenting child sexual abuse. Data from last year shows that a fifth of the material reported was classified as the most serious forms of child abuse including rape, torture and sexual assault. According to the IWF, the number of images depicting the most severe forms of abuse has doubled compared to 2021 and the youngest children are the ones suffering the worst abuse. More than 81% of the images of children under two years old were grossly abusive. The demand for child sexual abuse is both massive and elusive. An illustrative example is the chatbot on Pornhub developed by IWF, with the support of Childhood, which is activated when users search for abuse material. When activated for 30 days on Pornhub’s UK site alone, the chatbot interacted with users 174,000 times.
“The large number of children currently exposed to serious abuse deserves a fact-based discussion on ways forward that take into account the right to privacy of both children and adults,” said Britta Holmberg, Program Director and Deputy Secretary General of the World Childhood Foundation.
The prevalence of child abuse committed, shared and disseminated on both the open and encrypted parts of the internet has skyrocketed in recent decades. Technological developments over the same period have created entirely new opportunities for perpetrators to threaten and harass children, to commit rape and then disseminate images and videos of the abuse. A majority of abuse material globally is already stored on servers in EU countries.
“Let’s be clear. Without technological tools to track, analyze and detect abuse, there is no chance of stopping the perpetrators. Not having new EU legislation in place before August 2024 would be a betrayal of vulnerable children,” said Paula Guillet De Monthoux, Secretary General of the World Childhood Foundation.
Voluntary and non-transparent
Currently, established tech companies search for abuse material and suspected grooming on a voluntary basis. Children and adults interact on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram without regulation and accountability. So far, we have relied on tech companies to work voluntarily to reduce risks to children. They choose to take on this task in different ways and with different levels of ambition. There is also no democratic transparency on what technology is used, how identified abuse material is handled and what is reported to law enforcement.
An important part of the new legislative proposal is the regulation of companies’ obligations to track, identify and report child abuse. The proposal includes the establishment of an EU center of expertise on online child abuse. It is also worth mentioning that there are clearly outlined measures to ensure that the tools used are appropriate and proportionate to the child’s risk of being abused and that decisions on more restrictive measures will be taken by the courts.
Who is responsible for protecting children?
We welcome a debate on whose responsibility it is to protect children online and how this should be regulated. We think it is reasonable that companies whose infrastructure enables child sexual abuse are also responsible for mitigating those risks. The regulatory framework for this needs to be transparent and democratically decided. It is unsustainable to leave it completely voluntary and without insight from our elected representatives.
Criticism of the bill has mainly focused on the risk of infringement of personal integrity. But if we choose not to include the children’s perspective in this, the price children pay will be too high. We need to carefully integrate different fundamental rights such as privacy and protection against abuse. In this context, it is important to remember that it is not a novelty that different freedoms and rights sometimes come into conflict and need to be reconciled. When we cross land borders, enter certain buildings or make certain payments, we are to some extent accepting restrictions on our privacy.
Similarly, we – and a large group of representatives from the police, the judiciary and civil society – believe that we need legislation that protects both the privacy of users and the privacy of children who are sexually exploited through technology.
For more information please contact:
Charles Mingo Bennström, Press & PR Manager World Childhood Foundation
+46(0)734 22 04 42, firstname.lastname@example.org