Baroness Joanna Shields OBE

Oct. 9, 2020

Legislation cannot catch every use case. Governments must be nimble and agile as use cases emerge that require exceptions to protect the public good, and in this case, our children from harm.

An epidemic of child sexual abuse and exploitation is raging online, causing unspeakable harm to children all over the world. A strong coalition of internet safety experts, technologists, NGOs and internet companies have been working for over a decade on the development of tools to detect child sexual abuse material and adults interacting with children for sexual purposes, most notably PhotoDNA. PhotoDNA has been widely accepted as an industry standard and deployed by the tech industry. The scale of the child sexual abuse material reported to law enforcement and taken down by platform companies, as a result, is staggering. It is important to note that each of those reports represents a crime scene of unspeakable horror and has left victims facing a life struggle to recover.

To convey some indication of the scale, of the 16.9 million total reports of CSAM that were received by NCMEC in 2019, which included 45 million pieces of identified child sexual abuse material (CSAM), 16.8 reports were from ESPs (Electronic Services Providers). Of those, almost 3 million images and videos depicting CSAM were hosted in the European Union. The hash technology is working, but we are facing an escalating crisis, and any limits on its deployment could mean millions of children are harmed.  

According to academic experts, at any given moment, an estimated 750,000 offenders are looking to connect with children online across the globe for sexual purposes. The scale of this predilection is shocking and combined with the lockdown and life restrictions imposed to combat COVID-19, creating a pandemic within the pandemic. A September 2020 INTERPOL brief reports a vast increase in online CSEA activity on both the Darknet and Clearnet and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has registered a 106% increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation online (OCSE) since the pandemic began.

Online service providers, whilst not always proactive or transparent, are required by law in many jurisdictions to use tools like PhotoDNA to detect child sexual exploitation images and alert authorities. That is why I welcomed with great relief the recent European Commission’s Strategy against Child Sexual Abuse, which has proposed an interim derogation to enable online communications services to combat child sexual abuse online through the continued use of specific technologies. In particular, the regulation would allow ESPs to keep using hash matching and related technologies such as Microsoft’s PhotoDNA for the sole purpose of detecting child sexual abuse online and then reporting it to authorities once the European Electronic Communication Code (Directive 2002/58/EC - ePrivacy Directive) will enter into force in December 2020.

Should the proposed regulation not be approved by the European Parliament, the ePrivacy Directive will expand the definition of electronic communications included in its domain and millions of reports coming from ESPs will be then made impossible. This would be catastrophic for the safety of our children and young adults who are spending more and more time online unsupervised as a result of the pandemic.

I do understand that any derogation to the e-Privacy Directive must be carefully considered to protect the privacy of all citizens. Still, in this case, the extent of the crime and its perniciousness warrants an exception. While the privacy of children is something to safeguard vigorously, our children deserve the right to a safe and happy childhood. They have a right to connect, learn and dream without fear of being targeted and abused by predators as they explore the digital world.

A child suffering from sexual abuse leads a life of pain, anguish and anxiety and videos and images which are circulated on the web ensure continued suffering. These vital tools provide that the trauma suffered does not continue with the circulation on the Internet of their abuse. Child victims have a right to privacy too.  

It is paramount that ESPs are granted the exception to continue doing their part to identify and report child abuse images and videos online effectively. The Commission’s proposed temporary and limited derogation can make this happen. In truth, all the exception does is maintain the current practice. Furthermore, its provisional element until 2025 gives us time to ensure proper privacy safeguards for children are developed and implemented.

I, therefore, urge all Members of the European Parliament to approve the EU Commission’s interim proposal. Without their favourable vote, criminals with a sexual interest in children will again have free reign to prey on children and to share evidence of their crimes with impunity. Please act now to save lives and protect children from this horrific harm.

Source: LinkedIn