The EU needs to find a permanent solution to protect children online by enabling international criminal investigations in encrypted digital environments.
Earlier this month, four people in Germany and Paraguay were arrested in a multi-agency operation to shutdown the dark web platform, ‘Boystown’. Set up by the German Federal Criminal Police, the international taskforce included Europol and law enforcement agencies from the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the United States. Before it was shutdown Boystown focused on the sexual abuse of children, with a membership that had swelled to 400,000 registered users. Several other chat sites on the dark web used by child sexual offenders were also seized on the same occasion.
The investigations and subsequent arrests exposed the urgent need for better international cooperation between investigative authorities, not only to identify the perpetrators, but to also identify the victims, and put an end to any ongoing sexual abuse of children. Current negotiations at the EU level around e-evidence regulations have been met with staunch criticism at the speed to which they are currently being implemented in national legislation. In 2021, the fight to prioritize children’s rights to protection in digital environments is at the forefront of a set of developments and laws which include the Digital Services Act and the EU Strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse 2020-2025. Despite the most current agreement of the European Parliament and the Council on the proposed interim legislation, when it comes to the detection of child sexual abuse online by communications services, security features like end-to-end encryption hamper proper criminal investigations.
Through Project Beacon, a campaign of awareness, advocacy, and lobbying at the EU level, ECPAT International aims to influence the adoption of policies, regulations, and a robust legal framework that will ensure child protection remains possible in digital spaces—including encrypted environments. Delivered with support from Oak Foundation and in close collaboration with international partners, Project Beacon’s primary audience is key decision-makers within the EU, through a coordinated campaign and advocacy activities with and by relevant ECPAT members in Europe. ECPAT also contributes with its expertise to the establishment of the new European Centre anticipated in the proposed EU strategy to combat child sexual abuse. It must become a global engine for progressive change, working within and helping to extend and enhance the existing ecosystem of online child protection stakeholders.
On the 28 April, the Project Beacon team sent a letter to the leaders of the European Union urging them to ensure children are at the forefront of their agenda and outlining key actions to consider. The newly agreed suspension is valid for three years. However, a long-term legislation must permanently ensure child online protection is as equally important as e-privacy is for online users.
Words matter and shape our understanding of reality. When we speak about cases like the one described above, we need to be clear that we speak about crimes. Each image is the documented sexual abuse of a child. Thus, the international community, led by ECPAT International, has agreed on a set of terms which are not harmful to children and do not stigmatize the victims.
Let’s call it what it is: Child sexual abuse material not child pornography