American actor and activist Ashton Kutcher is urging EU policymakers to grant tech giants like Facebook and Google a reprieve from new privacy rules that would prohibit them from using automatic detection tools to combat child pornography.
The European Electronic Communications Code, which comes into effect on December 21, aims to rein in the broad powers that tech firms have to scan private digital communication. Privacy advocates say the mass screening of emails and messaging apps in search of child pornography violates the rights of Europeans.
But critics argue the privacy protections will put children at risk.
“We [need to] protect the privacy of these kids,” said Kutcher, who is the co-founder of Thorn, a non-profit organization that combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children with a focus on internet technology. “They didn’t consent to their abuse being shared online … Their privacy matters, too.”
Kutcher has backed an interim law proposed by EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson that would give tech companies an exemption from the code, allowing them to continue tracking child sexual abuse online. The European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee made a number of changes to the law as proposed by Johansson, and the new text will be laid before the full European Parliament next week.
At the moment, tech giants routinely run software that scans their platforms for pornographic images and video involving children.
“Some of these kids are toddlers, even as young as infants,” Kutcher told CNN Business. “These are vital clues that help us identify these children and bring them to safety. If this interim legislation doesn’t happen, those clues are gone. They’re in the dark. Nobody can see them. We can’t find those kids.”
Last year, almost 90% of known URLs containing child sexual abuse material were hosted in Europe, according to the Internet Watch Foundation. In that same year, the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said it received almost 17 million referrals of child abuse content from tech firms.
“My legislation is a temporary one, just to make sure that [the] voluntary detection of child sexual abuse that is taking place today, will not be stopped,” said Johansson. “[Without it, it’s] like we are turning off the light and letting the pedophiles and the perpetrators continue [in] the dark.”
Johansson’s proposal has gained support from law enforcement agencies around the world. Inspector Timothy Zammit, of the Maltese Police, who chairs the European Union Cybercrime Taskforce, said: “The reality is that the biggest losers in the situation are the children, are the child victims, that we continue to come across on a day-to-day basis in our regular work.”
The European Union has pushed in recent years for stronger protections for personal data. In 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect, forcing companies to make sure the way they collect, process and store data is safe.
The European Electronic Communications Code overhauls European telecoms rules, but it also includes some consumer protections.
“Indiscriminately examining and searching the content of everybody’s digital correspondence is as if the post office were just opening all our letters to check if there is something prohibited in them, which is really unthinkable,” said German lawmaker Patrick Breyer.
Breyer, who has called for the European Parliament to reject the temporary law proposed by Johansson, said he believes it would be better to run “targeted investigations against suspects” on such platforms, rather than conducting mass screening operations.
The European Commission will propose separate legislation to tackle child sexual abuse online by the second quarter of 2021. The temporary law proposed by Johansson would apply until that legislation comes online. A final text of the temporary law must be negotiated and approved by the European Parliament and the European Council before it can take effect.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.