Commission unveils law to fight child sexual abuse online

The European Commission on Wednesday proposed a law to force digital companies to find, report and remove online child sexual abuse material circulating on their platforms.

As reported by POLITICO, Google, Apple, and Meta’s WhatsApp and Instagram could be faced with court orders to hunt down photos and videos of child abuse or else face hefty fines of up to 6 percent of their global revenue. Companies would also have to clamp down on grooming — conversations where offenders try to inappropriately connect with children.

The proposals come as child sexual abuse has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. Eighty-five million such videos and images were produced last year, according to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Yet the scale of the problem is likely to be underestimated. Up to 95 percent of the content was voluntarily reported by one company.

“Detection, reporting and removal of child sexual abuse online is also urgently needed to prevent the sharing of images and videos of the sexual abuse of children, which retraumatizes the victims often years after the sexual abuse has ended,” said Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.

Digital companies like hosting services, clouds, messaging apps, internet access services and app stores will have to ensure they know the age of their users, a practice known as age verification.

The plan also proposes to set up a new independent EU agency based in The Hague. Working alongside Europol with a budget of €26 million, it would be tasked with parsing through the reports of illegal material, coordinating databases of digital fingerprints of illegal material (known as hashes) and helping companies find reliable technologies. It would also act as an intermediary between tech companies, law enforcement and victims.

While child protection groups have welcomed the law, tech companies and privacy activists have warned of risks for encrypted messaging platforms and online surveillance.

Vice President for Promoting our European Way of Life Margaritis Schinas said the detection done by tech companies will be “very tightly ringfenced with strong safeguards in place.”

The proposal will need to be approved by the European Parliament and Council.