Charity fears 46,000 daily reports of child-sex abuse material will be missed

By Cormac O'keeffe
irish Examiner
December 19, 2020

The ISPCC warns that new privacy rules could prevent online giants from using software that automatically detects child-abuse material.

A children's charity is alarmed by stuttering efforts at EU level to resolve a row over privacy laws that risks preventing internet firms from automatically detecting child-abuse material.

The ISPCC said that if these software tools were made illegal that an estimated 46,000 reports of child sexual-abuse imagery and grooming behaviour per day could be missed.

The threat is described as the unintended consequence of a broader attempt in the European Parliament to protect private online communications from being monitored by internet companies.

It is feared that the new privacy rules could prevent online giants from using software that automatically scans their systems for child-sex abuse imagery and grooming behaviour.

The parliament, the European Commission, and representatives of member states have been engaged in urgent talks to find a way to exempt the online companies from the incoming privacy law.

The ISPCC said those trilogue talks had now paused and expressed concern at the prospect of "vital child-protection" measures becoming illegal.

For every day that the use of detection tools was not permitted, 46,000 reports of child-sexual abuse material could be missed, the charity said.

These tools generated 16.8m reports in 2019. 

The charity said that child-protection organisations across Europe, including the ISPCC, had been advocating for EU leaders to agree to a temporary derogation and facilitate the continuation of the scanning.

ISPCC chief executive, John Church, said: "Children have a right to be safe: Both online and offline. There is an onus on us all to do all we can to uphold this right. It is inconceivable, therefore, that our European representatives have failed to take swift action to protect children who are victims of the most heinous crime of childhood sexual abuse.

"Devastatingly, it now seems that the use of the vital tools is set to become illegal," Mr Church said. "The exact implications for children of this potential development remain somewhat unclear." 

He said: "What kind of message are our representatives sending to children, and young people, across Europe this Christmas, by appearing to disregard their privacy, protection, dignity, and bodily integrity? In their failure to show decisive leadership on this important matter, they are putting children at further risk.

"It is shameful that we have arrived at this impasse," Mr Church said. "Ultimately, it is predators and perpetrators who are best-served. A resolution must be now found, until formal talks reconvene." 

In response to a query from the Irish Examiner, the Department of Justice said they supported temporary measures to allow the companies to continue the detection.

"The enactment of the EU proposal of an interim regulation for a temporary and limited derogation from measures arising from entry into application of the European Electronic Communications Code, on 21 December 2020, is a key action of the recently published EU strategy for a more effective fight against child-sexual abuse," the department said.

"The department is very supportive of this strategy, and its overarching aim and associated actions, in support of children's fundamental right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being."

It said the department was working with the Department of Environment, Climate, and Communications to support the swift passage of the interim regulation.

It said this would "ensure that companies may continue to deploy their own measures on voluntary detection, removal, and reporting of child sexual abuse online".

It said the department was following discussions between the European Council presidency, the  commission, and the parliament "to ensure that this proposal can be agreed at the earliest opportunity".


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