Study ‘risks decades of progress’ in fight against child sexual abuse online

Published:  Fri 14 Apr 2023

Impact assessment criticising EU proposal to tackle child sexual abuse material shows ‘gaps in knowledge and understanding of key issues’, IWF warns.

A new impact assessment, commissioned by the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee and produced by the European Parliament’s Research Service (EPRS), into the proposed EU legislation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse has been described as ‘disappointing’ by Europe’s largest hotline dedicated to identifying and removing child sexual abuse content from the internet. 

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) says the study shows a lack of knowledge and understanding relating to key technical issues on the topic because it failed to engage with a wider group of stakeholders. 

The IWF is concerned that the EPRS report could threaten vital work that companies already do to protect children online, as the report claims that new binding obligations for the tech industry to detect, report and remove child sexual abuse material from their services could impact on people’s fundamental rights. 

IWF CEO Susie Hargreaves OBE said: “As the only European hotline which can proactively search for child sexual abuse material, we know Europe has a problem with hosting this type of content, with more than half of the material we have removed from the internet in the last year, being hosted in an EU Member State. 

“While we welcome the value of another impact assessment, we are disappointed that the researchers have not spoken to a wider group of stakeholders and regret not having the opportunity to offer our expertise. We feel that, as a result, there are gaps in the knowledge and understanding of the key issues here.  

“There is a real danger of losing sight of what we already know works and is effective. The IWF’s expert team of analysts currently provide highly accurate and reliable data sets of known child sexual abuse content to partners in the tech industry. It is concerning that this impact assessment states the European Commission’s proposed move to mandatory detection orders could fail proportionality tests on fundamental rights.  

“It is vital that industry continues to detect known child sexual abuse content, and where possible, is given space to innovate in their response to content that hasn’t previously been detected and grooming. That is why it is so important that we amend the current proposal to ensure companies can continue to use the tools and data we provide as part of their risk mitigation processes. Any further delays to this proposal risks decades of progress in the fight against the spread of child sexual abuse online.” 

The lead rapporteur on the proposed legislation, MEP Javier Zarzalejos, also expressed disappointment, saying that the assessment did not open a way forward to deal with the crime.   

He told the LIBE Committee hearing which discussed the impact assessment: “We as legislators cannot say, it is very difficult, or there is very little that we can do, apart from building on known CSAM (child sexual abuse material). 

“We know the impact of child predators on the internet is of enormous importance and I think we have to react as legislators. The main step of this legislation is to move from voluntary detection to mandatory detection, and in my opinion, this makes the European Union a leader in this area.” 

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