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Published 09.11.23

Children's rights organisations call for stronger measures to protect children from sexual abuse

Torsten Krause, SDC

Negotiations on the European Commission's proposal to prevent and combat sexual abuse of children on the internet are continuing in both the European Council and the European Parliament. While final agreement on a compromise proposal has already been postponed several times in the European Council and various concepts for dealing with possible detection orders are still being discussed, by end of October the European Parliament's LIBE Committee has already been able to publicly announce that all parliamentary groups have agreed on a common position. Nevertheless, the committee has yet to reach a decision. This has been scheduled for the meeting on 14 November 2023.

Based on the joint statement by the rapporteur and shadow-rapporteurs in the LIBE Committee, detection orders for the depiction of sexual abuse of children online should be permissible if there are reasonable grounds of suspicion on individual users, or on a specific group of users of unencrypted services, either as such or as subscribers to a specific channel of communication, in respect of whom there is a link, even an indirect one, with online child sexual abuse material, and a court authorises the detection. It should not be possible for detection orders to cover the solicitation of adults towards children for the purpose of sexual abuse (grooming). It will also no longer be possible to voluntarily monitor depictions of sexual abuse of children online. When the proposed regulation comes into force, the current interim derogation of the ePrivacy Directive will expire. Detections will then only be allowed on the basis of the new regulation.

Against this backdrop, more than 80 children's rights organisations are concerned that the number of reported depictions could decrease significantly and that the prosecution of and combat against sexual abuse of children on the internet would be heavily affected. In an open letter, they argue that the new regulation should also allow service providers to voluntarily investigate known and new depictions of abuse. A compromise proposal submitted in the meantime by Committee Chairman Zarzalejo envisaged that service providers themselves could apply to the court for a detection order. This would make sense, for example, if the mandatory risk assessment were to examine for a limited period of time whether and how much incriminated material is being distributed on a service in order to establish suitable measures to minimise the risk. With an open letter, the children's rights organisations want to convince those involved in the legislative process to include the possibility of voluntary detection in the regulation.

In parallel a new campaign called "Every image counts" was launched to raise awareness of the importance of combating sexual abuse of children on the internet. It uses current data to illustrate the extent of such offences against children and calls to take action to protect children. Meanwhile, organisations and alliances that oppose the European Commission's proposal criticise the Commission for taking one-sided advice and not sufficiently acknowledging opposing positions.