Clash of two views on how to deal with online child abuse in Europe

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Except Tuesdays when she is in the Dutch Senate, Arda Gerkens spends her time helping tech companies remove child sexual abuse material hidden on their platforms. For seven years, the senator ran the non-profit foundation Expert Agency for Online Child Abuse, known by the Dutch acronym EOKM. With its 20-person team, Gerkens offers no-judgement advice and free auto-discovery tools for businesses from images to file hosting. Most companies want to keep their networks clean, she says. “They just need help.

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However, lawmakers in the European Union have lost patience with this persuasion approach and say the platforms have failed to resolve the issue voluntarily. This week, the European Commission’s home affairs department put forward new rules this would allow courts to force tech companies to scan images, videos and texts of their users in search of child abuse or childcare. But the proposed law has no exceptions, meaning that encrypted services like WhatsApp and Telegram could be forced to scan their users’ private messages.

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Companies in the Netherlands post more material about child sexual abuse than any other EU country. But Gerkens thinks the Commission’s proposal goes too far. She likes the idea of ​​a central European center for coordinating repression. But she worries that scanning any platform for text could result in too many messages being flagged in error, and that forcing encrypted services to scan private messages would compromise the security of some of the most secure places on the internet.

According to her, encrypted messengers protect both children and adults. Each year, the EOKM helpline receives several requests from minors who have been blackmailed by hackers to create and send explicit images after their unencrypted social media accounts have been hacked. Gerkens is concerned that breaking the encryption will cause such incidents to become more frequent. “​[If] you have a loophole in the encryption, it works both ways,” she says.

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The encrypted space debate exposes deep divisions in Europe over how to deal with a problem that is only getting worse. Every year, investigators find more material on the Internet about child sexual abuse than the year before. From 2020 to 2021, the British non-profit organization Internet Watch Foundation recorded more than 60 percent jump in this content type. The urgency of addressing this growing problem has created further tension in an already heated debate centered on one question: Is it disproportionate to scan everyone’s private messages to eradicate child sexual abuse?

“If you want to search someone’s house like a cop, you can’t just go and do it willy-nilly; you need good reason to suspect [them]it should be the same in the online environment,” says Ella Jakubowska, political adviser for the Brussels-based digital rights group European Digital Rights.

Others see scanning tools differently. The technology is more like an airport police dog, says Iota Souras, senior vice president and general counsel for the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “This dog does not know what I have in my suitcase and does not report it in any way. He warns if he smells a bomb or drugs.”

Encrypted messaging services were quick to denounce the Commission’s proposal. Julia Weiss, a spokeswoman for Swiss messaging service Threema, says the company did not want to violate the privacy of its users in any way. “Building a surveillance system to proactively scan all private content was a terrible idea. when Apple suggested itand now it’s a terrible idea. added Will Cathcart, CEO of WhatsApp, in a Twitter post. In August 2021 Apple announced the offer scan photos of their users for child sexual abuse, but after harsh criticism these plans in a month.

But European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson is stubbornly pushing for the law to be passed. “I am open to criticism from companies because finding child sexual abuse material and protecting children may not be beneficial, but necessary,” she said at a press conference on Wednesday. She added that the tools used to perform any scan should be the least intrusive technologies and should be selected in consultation with data protection authorities.

Johansson’s proposal does not specify which technology these companies should use to scan messages. The reason for this, according to the commissioner, is that legislation does not become obsolete as new privacy solutions are invented. Its supporters say the law will also incentivize companies to allocate more resources to building tools they will later be required to use. “I am more and more convinced that if the environment is right and if there is a regulatory framework that protects children and adolescents, then companies and solutions can be created and generated that can eliminate this crisis,” says Paul Seitz, executive coordinator of the Brave Movement, an organization that represents victims of childhood sexual abuse.

But privacy groups say this approach means the legislation is based on impossible technology. “It doesn’t matter how many times Commissioner Johansson publicly states that you can scan encrypted messages securely and fully respect privacy,” Jakubowska says. – That doesn’t make it true.

The regulation still needs to be approved by the European Parliament and EU member states, which could take years. But critics, including German federal data protection officer Ulrich Kelber, pledge to stop the current offer. “Because some points will lead to decisions that deeply violate fundamental rights, regulation should under no circumstances be maintained in this form,” he said on Thursday.

Yet Johansson remains unperturbed. In an interview with WIRED, she describes the fight against child sexual abuse as a very personal matter. “As a mother, I feel obligated to protect my children,” she says. “As an adult, I have a duty to protect all children. And as a politician, when I have the right to propose child protection legislation, I think I have a moral obligation to propose this legislation.”

Other members of the European Parliament accused Johansson of bringing emotional tension to the debate, due to which hard to criticize details in the law without feeling they don’t care about children suffering from child abuse.

However, the commissioner can claim support among child sexual abuse survivors, who say they are impressed by her strong rhetoric and simple language on topics that still seem taboo.

“It’s very nice when you survive when you have a political leader who is very influential, talks about shame, talks about trauma, talks about the impact of child sexual abuse,” says Mie Kohiyama, a French child sexual abuse survivor. an abuse that is also part of the Brave Movement that was created earlier this year. “It’s so important to us.”


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