How to avoid child pornography on social networks? The European Commission is leaning towards more control of chats on messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Signal or Snapchat in its new proposal for a regulation for the “protection of children on the Internet” of Wednesday May 11. But even before this text goes before the deputies, it is already raising concerns.
“Big brother is watching you”, writes George Orwell in his dystopia1984 which speaks of a society monitored and controlled to the extreme. If the European Commission’s plan does not go that far, German MEP Patrick Breyer compared it “to a giant step towards Chinese-style mass surveillance” in a press release.
What does this text really say?
The rules proposed by the European Commission require app providers to detect, remove and report child pornography content on their services details the Politico site. To deal with this flood of alerts, an independent European Union center dedicated to managing child sexual abuse could be created. It would facilitate the analysis of reports and identify those that are erroneous. It would also be responsible for sending reports to the law enforcement agencies of the member country from which the message originated and providing support to victims.
There are many child victims of pedocrime, hence the urgency of action for the European Union. In fact, she identified 85 million photos, messages and videos which illustrate sexual abuse of minors in 2021. This figure jumped 64% with the pandemic according to the British observatory Internet Watch Foundation.
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“The sexual abuse of children is a real and growing danger: not only are the number of reports increasing, but they now concern younger children”, declared in a press release the Commissioner for Home Affairs of the European Union, Ylva Johansson, to defend this project. “Today’s proposal establishes clear obligations for businesses to detect and report child abusewith strong safeguards ensuring the privacy of everyone, including children,” she added.
Towards the end of the confidentiality of our data?
However, it is the part on the confidentiality of user data that makes MPs and companies wince. It was the hackers of the Chaos Computer Club, a European mediation association, who gave the alert first. According to them, this project would allow the European Union “to analyze all the texts and all the images sent by the couriers on the client side.” To do this, an artificial intelligence would be used to detect illicit content. “It would even work with end-to-end encrypted messengers like Signal or WhatsApp, because the content is scanned before it is encrypted and sent to the recipient.” For the organization, relying on artificial intelligence would cause it to “wrongly mark content as illegal” and authorities would be “overwhelmed with the flow of content to verify.”
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She also points another red flag, the lack of respect for freedom of expression, in particular concerning whistleblowers and journalists. “What would happen if this system were taken over by undemocratic governments? Moreover, between the right to secrecy in telecommunications and the right to guarantee the confidentiality and integrity of computer systems, control of the chat overrides two fundamental rights. Users lose control over what data they share and with whom. They are losing fundamental trust in their own devices,” she said in a statement.
The European Commission tried to allay its concern: “Detection technologies should only be used for the purpose of detecting child sexual abuse. Providers will have to deploy technologies that are least intrusive to privacy“, she declares in her proposal for a European regulation.
This response did not satisfy WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart. He reacted on Twitter to this lack of precision on data protection: “It is disappointing to see a proposed EU regulation on the Internet fail to protect end-to-end (data) encryption. Lawmakers should focus on ways to protect children while encouraging privacy on the Internet.”
Do not panic however, the text will not be applied tomorrow throughout the European Union. It must first be amended by Parliament. The deputies will look into its gray areas, before the text is sent to the Council of the European Union. A final version is expected for 2023.
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