The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, as the Internet Watch Foundation noted a 64 per cent increase in reports of confirmed child sexual abuse in 2021 compared to the previous year. Like all other places in the world, the digital world should be safe for children and that means protections should be in place.
Consequently, the European Commission announced a new proposal in May 2022 to prevent and fight the problem of child sexual abuse online and the spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The proposal was announced together with a new European strategy for a Better Internet for Kids (called BIK+) and follows the EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse, which was launched in 2020 and calls for a strong legal framework.
Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said: “As adults, it is our duty to protect children. Child sexual abuse is a real and growing danger: not only is the number of reports growing, but these reports today concern younger children. These reports are instrumental to starting investigations and rescuing children from ongoing abuse in real time. […] Detection, reporting and removal of child sexual abuse online are also urgently needed to prevent the sharing of images and videos of the sexual abuse of children, which retraumatises the victims often years after the sexual abuse has ended.”
Child sexual abuse online has proven to be a fast-growing problem with more than 3,000 reports globally in 1998, 100,000 reports in 2014, more than 1 million reports in 2014, and 85 million reports last year. It is important that the abuse is detected and reported, as that is key to preventing and stopping child sexual abuse in real life.
Proposal to lay down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse
At the present time, over 60 per cent of child sexual abuse materials worldwide are hosted on EU servers and European Member states are among the global top ten hosting countries. However, most reporting by online service providers is done on a voluntary basis and US service providers detect and report most of the abuse. Up to 95 per cent of all reports of child sexual abuse received in 2020 came from one company, Meta.
One of the things the new proposal wants to change is this. Companies offering services in the EU should be required to detect, report, and remove child sexual abuse material online regardless of their place of establishment, while also ensuring that the fundamental rights of users are protected. Providers should also assess the risk that their services are being misused to disseminate child sexual abuse material or grooming.
Moreover, with the new proposal, service providers should be required to use basic intrusive measures. Any necessary review will take place on an anonymous basis, and it is possible to take steps to identify users only in cases where potential online child sexual abuse is detected. The technology used would not be able to extract any other information than what is strictly necessary to detect the abuse.
To help the detection of child sexual abuse, Member States will need to designate national authorities in charge of reviewing the risk assessment, when child sexual abuse materials are reported. When those authorities conclude that there is a certain risk for the child, they can ask a court or other national authority to issue a detection order for known or new child sexual abuse material or grooming. Moreover, national authorities should be able to issue removal orders if the child sexual abuse material is not swiftly taken down.
Lastly, the Commission’s proposal urges the establishment of an EU Centre on Child Sexual Abuse. There is currently no central EU organisation where service providers can send their reports. As a result, reports of abuse in European countries are sent first to the US and then back to EU law enforcement agencies. The EU Centre is meant to facilitate the efforts of service providers by acting as a hub of expertise, providing reliable information on identified material, and receiving and analysing reports from providers to identify erroneous reports and prevent them from reaching law enforcement. It will also assist national governments, work together with National law enforcement and Europol, and it will help victims, by helping them to take down the materials depicting their abuse.
The internet has proven to be a great connector, including for children and especially throughout the pandemic, and Better Internet for Kids advocates for a safe but also fun internet. However, children may also be exposed to risks online, including when it comes to child sexual abuse. The new rules will help rescue children from further abuse, prevent material from reappearing, and bring offenders to justice. It is now for the European Parliament and the Council to agree on the proposal.
The Commission's Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs has launched a campaign to support the adoption of the legislation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse and the spread of the material online. More information on the campaign can be found on the campaign’s website ,or read the press release on the proposal.
For more information about child sexual abuse material (CSAM), INHOPE and Better Internet for Kids (BIK) coordinate the network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) in Europe. INHOPE focuses on member hotline activities dedicated to the removal of illegal content online, specifically CSAM. Find more information on the work and activities of the Insafe and INHOPE network of Safer Internet Centres (SICs) on the BIK portal.