Just over a year ago, the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children announced that it had received nearly 17 million reports of child sexual abuse found on the internet in 2019. The reports came from all over the world, including three million from the European Union. More than 30,000 came from Portugal. Such denunciations, either from the National Center or from other sources, were used last October by the Portuguese police to arrest a man who ran a website dedicated to sharing material on child sexual abuse. Twelve arrests were made in Spain and Portugal for this single operation.
The 17 million complaints received by the National Center relate to the impressive 69 million photos and videos. This is because each report can contain multiple incidents of rape or harassment of children, or it may point to a variety of illegal sexual behaviors involving a child. Much of the illegal pictures or sharing took place in and around messaging services, with Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct being the most important.
Over the years, technology companies have struggled to find increasingly effective ways to prevent their networks from being used to harm children in this way.
There were and are three main challenges. The first, and perhaps biggest, was finding a way to ensure that photos and videos that were already found illegal were not reposted or exchanged indefinitely.
This is extremely important for the victims. It was bad enough that they’d been sexually assaulted or molested, usually by someone in their family or larger social circle, but images or images of their pain and humiliation were constantly being broadcast around the world to see that the Nature added and greatly expanded the damage already suffered.
The second was to find an efficient way to find new photos and videos. This material has not yet been checked by human eyes to confirm the illegal nature of its contents, but it likely contained material relating to child sexual abuse.
All child sexual abuse images are important, but a new urgency is ascribed to new images because although some images in the first category may be five, ten or more years old, a new image suggests that there is a child that it can be abused now, then the police and others can intervene and find them in no time to free them from any danger and arrest the perpetrator.
The third type of worrying behavior is “lure”. Here a child is approached online and asked to behave sexually illegally. This can be done entirely online, for example by engaging in sexual acts in front of a camera or by participating in sexual acts during a real-world meeting.
The good news is that many of the world’s largest technology companies have been very successful in developing technical solutions, tools that can work on the scale required and very quickly. Of the multitude of complaints received by the National Center, a large proportion of the photos and videos were only viewed by the person who actually posted them.
Since 2009, more and more companies have been using these tools on a voluntary basis. No law forced them to. You did it because it was the right attitude. The results are shown in the number of complaints submitted. They allow us to glimpse a future where potential offenders know their actions are unlikely to go unnoticed, which in turn will result in fewer children being abused.
However, on December 20, 2020, all these child protection activities ended for several companies. Why? Because, according to the company, it required a new EU law. December 20th was the day the European Electronic Communications Code went into effect, and companies that no longer used these tools stated that while it was obviously an unintended and unforeseen consequence, it was still the law . This interpretation of the new law is controversial, but to remove any reasonable doubt, the European Commission has published a proposal to temporarily suspend the law so that all companies can continue to act as before, at least until a new policy and law can be agreed on .
The Council of Ministers has largely supported the Commission’s proposal, but in the EU procedures a third element, the European Parliament, must also agree, and this is where the problem lies. In particular, under the leadership of German MPs, in particular Birgit Sippel, of the SPD, the temporary suspension is rejected unless it is enforced under the conditions proposed by them, which frankly cannot be met within a reasonable period of time. I find that surprising and disappointing. Nobody is asking Parliament to give up its positions – I think I agree with part of what they have said. It is inexplicable to me not to allow the status quo ante to be temporarily restored. We know the damage that is done. The numbers speak for themselves.
Portugal currently holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers. The Portuguese Government is therefore in a unique position to help end this disaster for the children of Europe.