On Wednesday afternoon, the European Commission introduced a bill with a tough new set of measures against the spread of child abuse online. One of the most important rules has to be that tech companies like Meta, Google, and Apple actively seek out illegal images that users share.
The Commission considers that voluntary measures by technology companies have not yet yielded sufficient results. This is why Brussels now wants an obligation to detect sexual abuse of minors online. Companies should delete the posts in question and report them to the authorities. If they don’t, they risk hefty fines.
The spread of online child abuse is a major problem in Europe, according to a report by the Internet Watch Foundation. A lot of this content is hosted in Europe. Around 62% of illegal images were on European servers in 2021.
The bill has been in the works for years and has already been postponed, in part due to objections over user privacy. So the question is how companies will detect the sharing of illegal content, especially since chat services like WhatsApp encrypt messages between two people so that only the participants in the conversation can see the content.
“Most abuse messages are on encrypted platforms”
With technology client-side device analysis hot, it would still be possible to scan these types of conversations for potentially harmful content. Databases containing photos of known abuse are used for this purpose. The data of these images (or texts) can then be compared fully automatically with the images shared in the chats, even if they are encrypted. If anything suspicious is discovered, tech companies must report it to the authorities.
The European Commission believes that these services should be controlled, even if they are encrypted. “A large proportion of abuse messages are on encrypted platforms,” said a Q&A from the Commission. “They can be used by criminals to cover their tracks. If these services were exempted, it would have major consequences for children.”
Critics of the bill are very concerned about the privacy of all users, not just criminals. Digital civil rights organization Bits of Freedom reacted with dismay to the proposal. “With this proposal, the European Commission wants to install spyware on everyone’s phone,” says political adviser Rejo Zenger. “This is unacceptable.”
Zenger stresses that tackling child sexual abuse is extremely important, but also says it’s not the solution. “Confidentiality of communications is essential for everyone, including children and victims of sexual abuse.”
The bill has not yet been adopted. The European Parliament and EU Member States will decide later.