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Putting children’s rights into the heart of digital policy

Meet ECPAT’s Project Beacon

Over the last few months, ECPAT International, in partnership with the Oak Foundation, ECPAT’s European members, and global partners, have been working on a vital project to help better protect children online. This project is called ‘Project Beacon’. But what is it? Read on to find out.  

ECPAT International believes that every child has the right to be safe online. With children increasingly relying on digital technologies and the Internet for education and socialisation, there have been questions about whether this access and reliance will be a positive or negative one for children. 

Policy change to better protect children

What is Project Beacon campaigning for?

Developed as a response to concern on the impact changes to European policy around digital rights in late 2020 have on children, Project Beacon is a special project that was formed to ensure tackling child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) remains a priority for EU policymakers, and possible despite privacy legislation. Project Beacon does this by building awareness, advocacy and engaging across Europe with European Union leadership and the public. Project Beacon aims to influence the adoption of unified policies, regulations, and a robust legal framework that will ensure child protection remains possible in digital spaces and encrypted environments.

On 21 December 2020, the Electronic Communications Code (EECC) came into force as part of the ePrivacy Directive in the European Union. This change meant technology companies that had been voluntarily scanning their platforms for child sexual abuse material were placed into legal limbo. This had immediate consequences for children. Prior to the EECC entering into force, at least 300 companies and organisations worldwide had been scanning for these materials using just one type of technology.  In the six weeks following the regulation coming into effect the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, a leading U.S. organisation for reporting issues related to child abuse,  announced a 51% decrease in reports of child sexual abuse material originating from the European Union, clearly showing that a significant number remain undetected.

After months of advocating for an agreement to be put into place allowing the technology companies to resume scanning, the European Parliament and the European Council reached an agreement on  the European Commission’s proposed interim derogation to allow the continuation of the detection of child sexual abuse online by communications platforms. ECPAT International welcomes this critical development. 

Project Beacon aims to influence the adoption of unified policies, regulations, and a robust legal framework that will ensure child protection remains possible in digital spaces and encrypted environments.

The interim derogation will only last for a maximum of three years, so now ECPAT International has shifted its focus to helping formulate a longer-term solution which provides sustained and robust protection for children online. This is a critical moment. Europe cannot afford to repeat the legal uncertainty and negative impact on children brought about by the EECC and subsequent disagreement over the interim derogation.

What is Project Beacon campaigning for now? Five crucial legislative measures 

Now that the disagreement over the interim derogation has been resolved, ECPAT International has set out its views on wider aspects of the online child rights and child safety agenda.  The temporary policy will enable the creation of an interim framework to allow the detection of CSAM which companies can adopt to help tackle online child sexual abuse. This will be seriously impacted by five legislative measures currently progressing through EU institutions, including the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and long-term legislation on combating child sexual abuse that will build on existing policy. Over the coming months Project Beacon will dive into these topics to try to explain why they matter. Today, the team outlines its priorities, the key issues, and why they matter.

Project Beacon has identified five key high-level positions: 

  • Safety-First Approach: ECPAT International argues that safety by design and privacy by default must be the standard and top priority for all communications platforms. Ensuring safety by design, and privacy by default, is an important way to prevent harm and protect children. 
  • Transparency and trust: This featured in the decision on the interim derogation but is of importance across all policy headings, for example in relation to the development and deployment of Artificial Intelligence. It cannot be left to companies to mark their own homework. Any claims about protecting children must be verified by mandated authorities. These issues are too important and sensitive to rely on voluntary best efforts.  
  • Legal liability: the current situation is showing the rise and complexity of online crimes and companies must be held accountable. Companies are currently immune from civil and criminal liability for anything that happens on their platform.  ECPAT International believes companies should only be able to retain their immunity once they have demonstrated all necessary steps were taken to minimise the risks of harm to children. 
  • Strengthen European capacities: European law enforcement agencies are highly dependent on the United States for a large proportion of online child sexual abuse reports. Should a change in US law occur, it will have a catastrophic impact on child protection within Europe. The European Commission is currently exploring the option of creating a new centre within Europe to prevent and combat child sexual abuse. ECPAT International supports the idea of such a centre to help coordinate a robust EU response, while working with the existing ecosystem and not duplicating existing mechanisms. 
  • Encryption: End-to-end encryption seems likely to become the new standard on messaging platforms. ECPAT International understands the importance of preventing a private organisation or government from accessing an individuals’ data without their knowledge or consent. However, since these services are widely used for criminal activity including child sexual abuse and exploitation, the companies operating messaging services should not be allowed to operate in a manner which allows impunity for wrongdoers. This would make child exploitation and abuse impossible to target and combat.

Whilst ECPAT International welcomes the temporary derogation,  it seeks to use this opportunity through Project Beacon to further the conversations outside of the normal circles (‘echo chambers’) to generate public awareness and pressure to ensure change is permanent and every child is protected. These efforts are well underway. A key example of this is an expert roundtable meeting hosted by ECPAT International and our partners the WePROTECT Global Alliance on technology, privacy and rights. The outcomes of this roundtable can be read here.

What is next for Project Beacon?  

Project Beacon seeks to be a fast-moving and agile project. It will continue to advocate for change and protect children in the digital space both on the long-term perspective and urgent matters. This will be a collective effort of  ECPAT members in EU Member States We will seek to inform the public debate around these crucial issues. ECPAT International invites you to join us as we tackle these challenging and complex issues and to share your thoughts with us about online privacy and how it relates to policy and protection. Change cannot be achieved without your help and ECPAT International welcomes all voices on the topic. Get in touch and stay ‘tuned’ for exciting developments to come!  

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