CHILD safety experts have expressed their dire concerns over an EU law that could come into effect as early as Monday.
The new law seeks to protect private online companies from monitoring by internet companies, yet has been highlighted as posing a serious threat to investigations into online grooming and pedophilia.
The move would mean that global internet firms could be banned from automatically detecting child abuse images on their systems from as early as next Monday, as rows over privacy laws continue to be fought in the EU parliament between the majority who dangerously seek to enforce the law on tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and those who are arguing to make such big tech companies exempt.
Companies that will be deeply affected by the law work voluntarily to assist police across the UK and Europe, passing on details of online pedophiles caught by their monitoring processes – but face being forced to stop such work as they will no longer be able to carry out such crucial monitoring.
Child safety experts say if the row is unresolved the law will inadvertently make it easier for abusers, and the new rules could also prevent those same companies using software to automatically scan for child sexual abuse material going through their systems – a vital function that has greatly assisted in the protection of children online and the prosecution of offendors.
The end of them being able to monitor private online companies would also mean that their automatic systems would no longer legally be able to highlight online conversations which have the hallmarks of abusers grooming victims on platforms such as Whatsapp and TikTok.
John Carr, secretary of the UK Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety and a globally-recognised expert in the field, warned that time was running out to ensure all of the necessary detection of online predators continues – placing children in direct danger of being groomed online.
“If Brussels does not change this law or put it on hold… sexual predators will have an easier time contacting children,” Mr Carr said.
“There will be more videos of children being raped available for people to view or download.
“The latter not only does further harm to the children depicted in the videos, to the extent such material also encourages or sustains paedophile behaviour, it puts children as yet unharmed in danger in every country in the world.”
Experts estimate that if the most controversial privacy measures become law, there could be a 70% drop in reports from internet companies to law enforcement agencies across the world.
The US-based National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children received almost 17m reports from internet companies in 2019, including alerts about potential abusers and victims operating across Europe. This, under the new law, would almost entirely come to an end.
Outgoing US Attorney General William Barr is the latest to raise concerns, saying the plans in the EU risked undermining the global response to a global crime.
Meanwhile, MEP David Lega, co-president of the European Parliament’s child safety group, said the privacy measures demanded by campaigners could set back the fight against online abuse 10 years.
“The cooperation between the tech companies and the law-enforcement authorities has proven instrumental in rescuing children in the EU and globally from child sexual abuse,” he said.
“By introducing [privacy] conditions, we will just give companies the perfect excuse to stop the voluntary use of these technologies.”
Seemingly trying to counter this, Boris Johnson’s government has been working behind the scenes with Ofcom, with the aim to have the regulatory body gain the power to block access to online services that fail to do enough to protect children and other users.
The regulator would also be able to fine Facebook and other tech giants billions of pounds, and require them to publish an audit of efforts to tackle posts that are harmful but not illegal.
The government is to include the measures in its Online Harms Bill.