“EU strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse”, European Commission
Delivering on a Security Union: Questions and Answers, Press Release, Brussels, July 24, 2020
Why is the Commission putting forward this strategy?
The fight against child sexual abuse is a priority for the EU. Child sexual abuse is more acute during the pandemic, as both children and perpetrators spend more time online.
A dramatic increase in child sexual abuse has been detected in the EU in recent years. The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children notes an increase in the EU from 23,000 reports of child sexual abuse online in 2010 to more than 725,000 in 2019, which included more than 3 million images and videos. A similar increase has occurred globally: from 1 million reports in 2010 to almost 17 million in 2019, including nearly 70 million images and videos. A vast majority of these reports originated in electronic communications. According to the Internet Watch Foundation, the EU has become the largest host of child sexual abuse material globally.
This EU strategy presents a framework to respond in a comprehensive way to the increasing threat of child sexual abuse, both in its online and offline form. This strategy will be the reference framework for EU action in the fight against these crimes in the next 5 years.
The strategy responds to the calls for concrete action from citizens, the European Parliament, and the Council. At global level, stakeholders have called for stronger approach in multiple fora, in particular at the December 2019 summit of the WePROTECT Global Alliance to End Child Sexual Exploitation Online.
What are the core actions under the strategy?
The strategy sets out 8 initiatives:
1. Ensuring complete implementation of current legislation (Directive 2011/93/EU);
2. Ensuring that EU legislation enables an effective response;
3. Identifying legislative gaps, best practices and priority actions;
4. Strengthening law enforcement efforts at national and EU level;
5. Enabling Member States to better protect children through prevention;
6. A European centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse;
7. Galvanising industry efforts to ensure the protection of children in their products; and
8. Improving protection of children globally through multi-stakeholder cooperation.
How would a new European Centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse work?
A new European Centre would provide support to Member States in the fight against child sexual abuse and ensure coordination to maximise efforts in three areas:
- Support to law enforcement: the Centre would receive reports in relation to child sexual abuse in the EU from companies, and when relevant forward these to law enforcement for action. It would increase accountability and transparency by helping ensure that there is no erroneous takedown or report of legitimate content and by receiving and addressing complaints from users who feel that their content was mistakenly removed.
- Prevention: supporting Member States and facilitating coordination, the Centre would become a hub for connecting, developing and disseminating research and expertise. It would foster dialogue among stakeholders, and provide input to policy-makers at national and EU level.
- Assistance to victims: national authorities and global experts would work together in order to ensure that victims receive appropriate assistance, including with the creation of research to support evidence-based policy on victim support. The Centre would also support victims in their efforts to remove their images and videos to safeguard their privacy, also through proactive search of materials and notification to the companies.
The Centre would build on best practices and lessons learned from similar initiatives around the world, such as the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and the Australian Centre for Child Exploitation.
When will the European Centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse be established?
The Commission will carry out an impact assessment, with a study to be launched immediately, to identify the best way forward in possibly establishing the centre. The Commission will work closely with the European Parliament and Member States to explore the various implementation options, including making use of existing structures for the centre’s functions where appropriate. This preparatory work will be carried out with the scope to maximise the centre’s added-value, effectiveness, and sustainability.
How will the prevention network operate?
The prevention network will allow practitioners and researchers from across Europe to support Member States by creating a virtuous cycle of practice to research and research to practice. The network will follow ascientific approach to prevention. The network will have a strong focus on prevention programmes for offenders and for people who fear that they may offend, as this is the area Member States struggle the most. Victims’ perspectives and views would also be brought into the network’s work. The network will also support Member States’ prevention efforts in relation to organisations that work with children and in raising awareness by creating focused media campaigns and training materials.
Is end-to-end encryption an obstacle in fighting child sexual abuse online?
The introduction of end-to-end encryption, while beneficial in ensuring privacy and security of communications, also facilitates the access to secure channels for perpetrators where they can hide their actions from law enforcement, such as trading images and videos. The use of encryption for criminal purposes needs to be addressed through solutions which could allow companies to detect and report child sexual abuse in end-to-end encrypted electronic communications. Any solution would need to ensure both the privacy of communications and the protection of children from sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, as well as the protection of the privacy of the children depicted in the child sexual abuse material.
Under the EU Internet Forum, the Commission has launched an expert process with industry to map and preliminarily assess, by the end of 2020, possible technical solutions to detect and report child sexual abuse in end-to-end encrypted electronic communications, and to address regulatory and operational challenges and opportunities in the fight against these crimes.
How will this strategy build on previous work in the field?
For more than 20 years, the EU has been providing funding, supporting dialogue with stakeholders and contributing to the legal framework for a safer online environment for children and young people. No single actor alone can defeat the crime of child sexual abuse: cooperation is key at EU and international level to make the best use of synergies as well as sharing experiences and best practices. Only a wide and complementary range of technical and legal measures can make this fight more effective and lead to a more integrated and better-coordinated approach. In particular, the new proposed strategy complements the European Strategy for a Better Internet for Children.
How does this initiative link to the Digital Services Act?
As announced in the President von der Leyen’s political guidelines and the Communication on Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, the Digital Services Act will upgrade the safety and liability rules for online platforms and other digital services. A public consultation is currently open to seek feedback from all stakeholders. The Commission will decide after this consultation on the most appropriate way forward, including the extent to which sector specific issues should be covered.