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EU Policy. Diplomats mull online child abuse control with no deal in sight

Extortion and threats
Extortion and threats Copyright Wilfredo Lee/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Wilfredo Lee/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Romane Armangau
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Dialogue is still open, but new attempts by the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU to find compromise have struggled with divisions over privacy among member states.

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EU diplomats are set debate compromise proposals to push for agreement on a child sex abuse law in a preparatory meeting this week, with little hope of agreement being reached before the end the Belgian EU presidency in June, according to sources.

The issue has been slated by the Belgian presidency for debate in by diplomats at working party level, likely on May 24 and June 6, sources told Euronews, before Justice and Home Affairs ministers debate the issue on June 14.

The European Commission proposed the regulation in May 2022 aiming to protect children online by increasing the detection of sexual abuse imagery and establishing an EU hub for the prevention of child sexual abuse. Subsequent European Parliament amendments stipulated more targeted circumvention of end-to-end encryption communications - a technology in which only the sender and the receiver can read the messages - to account for concerns that the proposal might flout civil liberties and enable mass surveillance.

One bloc of countries led by Spain and Ireland have adopted positions closer to the Commission’s original proposal considering the surveillance necessary to ensure protection of children at all costs. This group wants to ensure inclusion of general monitoring and access by law enforcement to end-to-end encryption within the proposal.

By contrast Austria, Germany and to a certain extent, France and Poland, back the European Parliament amendments and would prefer exclusion of provisions allowing access to end-to-end encryption in the text, questioning the effectiveness and proportionality of the measure.

The Belgian presidency has suggested several compromises to address the conflicting views. The latest proposal includes monitoring all smartphone users by implementing "client-side scanning", a technology that scans users' devices. However, it would only examine pictures, rather than audio and text messages. If any known criminal child pornography were found, it would be reported to an EU center for further investigation by authorities.

Civil society weighs in

This is such a divisive issue because it is also an issue on what are the European values, what does it means in terms of privacy and security
Callum Voge
Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy at Internet Society

Digital rights advocacy group EDRi with more than 50 civil society last year wrote an open letter calling for the proposal not to unduly impact “those whose safety relies on secure online communications... no matter how important the goal of the law”. The letter suggested that the proposal could be challenged and highlighted concerns that were raised in relation to the proposal by the EU Council Legal Service, regarding compatibility of the proposed text with human rights laws that prohibit general monitoring.

A letter signed by 312 high-level scientists, experts and researchers from 35 countries also expressed concerns. It regretted that "instead of starting a dialogue with academic experts and making data available on detection technologies and their alleged effectiveness, the proposal creates unprecedented capabilities for surveillance and control of Internet users."

If no agreement is reached, the file will pass to the upcoming Hungarian presidency of the Council, which takes over from the beginning of July.

The incoming Hungarian presidency is yet to announce whether or how it intends to continue debate on the issue. So far in the Council, Hungary has generally advocated for broad chat control.

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