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“The time for talking is over, Europe requires firm effective action now.”

By Susie Hargreaves OBE

Susie Hargreaves

I was pleased to see that the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, used a recent speech in an event co-hosted with the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Child Rights to announce that she will shortly be presenting a new strategy to fight child sexual abuse. This is a welcome, and long overdue step.

For the past three years, the European Union (EU), and the Netherlands in particular, have been found to be hosting a disproportionate amount of the world’s known online child sexual abuse material, making the EU the worst region in the world for such content, a fact that Commissioner Johansson is clearly far from proud of.

Last year, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) found the Netherlands was responsible for 71% of the 132,700 webpages it actioned for removal. This means the IWF asked the Dutch hotline and Dutch hosting companies to remove 94,000 webpages in the past year. This equates to millions of individual images as each webpage can contain up to hundreds of individual images.

Combine this with the fact that in 2019, the Commission opened infringement proceedings against 23 Member States for possible non-conformities with the transposition of the current Child Sexual Exploitation Directive, and it is an even more concerning picture.

We can all do better, and all do more, in the fight against the spread of this abhorrent material in Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic also gives us further impetus to act. In the UK, we discovered that throughout the initial period of lockdown, in the month of April, there were nearly nine million attempts to access known child sexual abuse material across three internet providers servicing the UK market. Whilst we cannot equate these to individual or human attempts to access these links of known child sexual abuse material, what we can tell you is that this is an extremely worrying number of attempts.

We are extremely concerned that national lockdowns have created a perfect storm of events which could see offenders spending more time online, as well as those they are seeking to exploit.

Europe needs to act now. It was heartening to hear of Commissioner Johansson’s plans for a more effective fight against the spread of child sexual abuse in Europe. Combine this with the Commission’s plans to introduce a Digital Services Act and there is significant opportunity to improve the response for victims of these heinous crimes.

Commissioner Johansson spoke of a new European Centre to counter child sexual abuse and support victims. This is certainly an interesting proposal, but it must complement wider global efforts to tackle this problem.

We would certainly like to see significant changes to the hosting issues in the Netherlands. We know that there is a strong and vibrant technology industry in the Netherlands and that content will always be found where the physical infrastructure exists. But the legislative loopholes which enable cheap and fast hosting and allow companies to profit from the hosting of child sexual abuse material - because they refuse to act on illegal content without a court order - must change.

Whilst the Dutch Minister of Justice and Security, Ferdinand Grapperhaus, has put companies on notice, threatening to name and shame them if they do not act, we believe the Netherlands and the EU must require strong and effective collaboration between government, law enforcement, the private sector and the Dutch hotline to be sufficiently resourced and empowered in order to effect change.

The IWF, the UK hotline, was founded in 1996 at a time when the UK was responsible for hosting 18% of the world’s known child sexual abuse content. Thanks to the partnership approach developed over the past twenty four years, with backing and support from law enforcement, government, the EU and the internet industry, we have hosted less than 1% of this content ever since 2003 and are now continuing to develop our approach to help solve the issue globally.

The model is particularly effective because the UK law is clear on what material is and isn’t illegal and the expectations of the companies if they are notified of hosting this content. The decisions that our world class analysts make are trusted by industry, law enforcement and government. We are in the privileged position of having the appropriate legal safeguards in place that mean we can act prior to the courts process and companies in the UK are happy to comply with the judgements we make.

If any company or individual wants to challenge a decision, then they can appeal to us in the first instance and as a last resort, if they are not satisfied with our judgement, they can appeal to an independent judge for formal judicial review.

We are now calling on the European Union to seize the opportunities presented by the Digital Services Act and the new EU Strategy to Fight Child Sexual Abuse to pursue a much more proactive strategy to addressing these issues.

We particularly want action on forcing the companies responsible for hosting a disproportionate amount of the world’s child sexual abuse material to come under considerable pressure. We believe that those companies should be compelled to make use of the services the IWF and others provide to scan their services and proactively prevent the upload of this abhorrent material.

The Commission should also consider using all the powers at its disposal to compel Member States to do much more through their own national structures. Victims of abuse and exploitation would find it completely unacceptable that seven years on Member States have failed to act on a clear directive from the EU. The IWF would like to see the European Commission reform the Directive and replace it with a regulation directly applicable to Member States. This would resolve transposition issues and present the opportunity of setting clear Europe-wide standards and expectations of the requirements the European Commission expects.

The IWF is proof of what can be done when hotlines are appropriately funded and resourced and have the right tools and relationships at their disposal. The recent pandemic has served only to remind us of the crucial need to act. The time for talking is over, Europe requires firm effective action now.

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