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Report presented at expert workshop on EU's proposed regulation on preventing and combatting child sexual abuse

Workshop brings multidisciplinary experts together to produce interdisciplinary outcomes on the EU’s Proposal for a Regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse.

Yesterday, 1 February, Dr Sabine Witting and Dr Mark Leiser, legal academics from Leiden University and the Vrije University of Amsterdam, respectively, presented a report on the potential implications of the European Union’s Proposal for a Regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse (proposed EU Regulation) to the 37th meeting of the Committee of the Parties (Lanzarote Committee) to the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse. The report, which was sponsored by both universities, ECPAT International, and the Council of Europe, is the result of a workshop convened by ECPAT International and Leiden University, under Chatham House rules in October 2022, where stakeholders from various organisations came together to search for common ground on the EU proposed Regulation.

The debate around the proposed Regulation continues to lack consensus. On the one side, child protection advocates are calling for the proactive use of safety technology with robust safeguards to detect child sexual abuse in digital environments and digital rights. On the other side, privacy advocates are calling such measures ‘mass surveillance’. Such conflicting positions risk missing the complexity of the debate and hinder thoughtful child rights and human rights-based policy decisions. Privacy and safety are independent and interrelated rights that benefit from each other’s strengths: high privacy standards will positively impact children’s safety online, just as the victims of child sexual abuse material have the right to privacy and protection from the images of their abuse being repeatedly shared online.

To create a fertile ground for a holistic policy dialogue, it is important to foster a mutual understanding of the various positions. Against this background, the expert workshop brought together technical experts with experience in child protection, privacy and data protection, and platform regulation. The objective was to create a forum for constructive dialogue among multi-sectoral experts to develop an intersectoral legislative approach protecting all fundamental rights.

Expert participants acknowledged the harm that online child sexual abuse poses and the importance of platforms in preventing its dissemination, but some also expressed concerns about its impact on human and fundamental rights. The EU’s proposed Regulation seeks to establish a clear and harmonised legal framework for preventing and combatting online child sexual abuse. It seeks to provide legal certainty to providers as to their responsibilities to assess and mitigate risks and, where necessary, to detect, report, and remove known child sexual abuse material, new child sexual abuse material or child solicitation on their services in a manner consistent with the fundamental rights laid down in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and as general principles of EU law. Experts discussed their concerns regarding the proposed Regulation’s compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the prohibition of general monitoring obligations for digital platforms and services.  Some participants expressed concern that the proposal, in its current form, could potentially impact specific fundamental and human rights. The report addresses these concerns.

The workshop explored several measures the EU could take to prevent and respond to online child sexual abuse, setting mandatory standards for child-friendly reporting mechanisms and ensuring that adolescents are not referred to law enforcement for consensual sexual exploration. The proposal to create a new EU Centre was also discussed, with participants agreeing on the importance of the Centre, remarking that it should be independent of EUROPOL and serve as a platform for knowledge sharing, coordination, and EU-wide victim support.

Another expert workshop will take place on 2 and 3 March 2023 at VU Amsterdam, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of currently available detection technologies from a child rights and fundamental rights perspective. The workshop’s organisers are committed to continuing the discussions and analysis of topics related to online child sexual abuse, with the intention that these workshops will help lawmakers develop legislation that respects and protects the fundamental rights of all users. The report’s authors are available for any questions or further discussions. For more information or to request an interview with Dr Witting or Dr Leiser, do not hesitate to contact them directly.

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