The European Parliament has approved emergency measures allowing internet companies to scan users’ private messages for material containing child sex abuse.
The controversial decision is an interim solution designed to fix problems with the European Electronics Communications Code, which came into force last December.
Last year, says the European Commission, nearly four million images and videos containing child abuse were reported, along with 1,500 grooming reports.
However, the new code unintentionally barred tech companies from voluntarily looking for illegal content such as child sex abuse.
“In a few short months, reports dropped by 53 per cent,” said commissioner Ylva Johansson in a speech earlier this week. “Hundreds of cases, going unnoticed every day.”
Now, though, internet companies will be allowed to detect, remove and report such content, as part of a temporary solution lasting up to three years. Meanwhile, national data protection authorities will have stronger oversight of the technologies used. All practices will be subject to GDPR and the Charter on Fundamental Rights, with the data processed limited to what is necessary, and held no longer than necessary.
Processing must be subject to human oversight, and companies will need to consult national data protection authorities if they use anti-grooming technologies or new technologies to detect material.
“The agreement is a compromise between detecting child sexual abuse online and protecting users’ privacy. It might not be perfect, but it is a workable, temporary solution for the next three years,” says rapporteur Birgit Sippel.
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“We now urgently need the Commission to propose a long-term solution that draws inspiration from the data protection safeguards found in the temporary rules, and which, in addition, makes scanning of private communications more targeted.”
However, not all MEPs are happy, with Pirate Party MEP Patrick Breyer claiming that 86 per cent of content reported by automated tools is not, in fact, offending.
“Chat control will allow e-mail, messaging and chat providers to indiscriminately search your private messages for allegedly illegal material and report to the police, using error-prone algorithms and AI,” he says.
“Blanket, real-time mass surveillance of all your emails and messages is inefficient, counter-productive, dangerous and causes severe collateral damage, including to children.”
Meanwhile, both the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and the Council of Europe have expressed concerns that the measures could infringe privacy and potentially represent an interference with the right to private and family life.