The EU’s plan to combat child sexual abuse online raises privacy concerns

Policymakers have long been at loggerheads with technology giants over the potential misuse of encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp and iMessage.

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The European Union on Wednesday unveiled a tough new proposal that would require online platforms to be more aggressively screened and online child abuse to be eliminated.

The proposed law would allow EU countries to request that the court direct companies such as Facebook’s parent company Meta and Apple to implement systems that could detect child sexual abuse content on their platforms.

A new EU center on child sexual abuse will be set up to implement the measures. Watchdog will maintain a database with digital “indicators” of child sexual abuse content. These indicators will be matched with relevant online service content. This is similar to a system proposed by Apple last year.

Block said they are introducing proposals because voluntary measures from technology giants are not currently sufficient.

“We are failing to protect children today,” EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Elva Johansson told a news conference on Wednesday.

He called the plan a “groundbreaking proposal” that would make Europe a world leader in the fight against online child sexual abuse.

It came after the EU agreed to landmark rules last month that technology companies needed to quickly remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms.

Privacy ‘disaster’

Privacy activists fear the new EU bill could weaken end-to-end encryption, which scrambles messages in such a way that they can only be seen by the recipient.

Joe Mulin, a senior policy analyst at the Digital Rights Group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the proposal was “inconsistent with end-to-end encryption and basic privacy rights.”

“There is no way for the EU to do what it wants to do without governments reading and scanning user messages on a large scale,” Mullen said. “If it becomes law, the proposal would be a disaster for user privacy, not just in the EU, but around the world.”

Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have long been at loggerheads with technology giants over the potential misuse of encrypted messaging services, such as WhatsApp and iMessage. Several governments are calling for so-called “backdoors” that would allow them to bypass their privacy controls.

“We look forward to working with the EU to inform the legal process on how we ensure the safety of children offline and online,” a Meter spokesman told CNBC.

“It’s important that any action taken does not undermine end-to-end encryption, which protects the security and privacy of billions of people, including children.”

‘Technically Neutral’

Although Brussels said the proposed restrictions were “technically neutral”, it warned that the consequences of keeping end-to-end encryption out of necessity would be “serious” for children.

The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that more than half of its child abuse reports will disappear through end-to-end encryption, with no detection of abuse.

But privacy activists believe that encrypted communication erosion will be ineffective.

“Criminals are already using distribution channels that will not be affected by these scans and will easily avoid scans in the future,” Linas Newman of the German hacker joint Chaos Computer Club told CNBC.

However, supporters of the bill say it is a necessary step to end child abuse on the Internet.

The laws will “ensure the safety of children, adolescents and future generations,” said the Brave Movement, an organization that runs campaigns for child protection.

“In the EU, digital spaces are in some cases completely unregulated – exposing children to the threat of horrific sexual violence and exploitation,” Muller said in a statement, co-founder of the Brave Movement.

Mueller himself, a survivor of child sexual abuse, said technology companies already have “tools to detect and remove content of sexual violence online” and that “child protection should take precedence over anything else.”

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