Policy makers have long struggled with tech giants over the potential abuse of encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and iMessage.
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The European Union unveiled tough new proposals on Wednesday that would require online platforms to more aggressively investigate and remove child abuse online.
The proposed legislation would allow EU countries to ask courts to order companies such as Facebook’s parent company A half Other Apple implement systems capable of detecting child pornography on their platforms.
To enforce the measures, a new EU Center on Child Sexual Abuse will be established. The EU Center will maintain a database with digital “indicators” of child sexual abuse content reported by law enforcement. It is similar to a system it was proposed from Apple last year.
“Today we do not protect children,” said Ylva Johansson, EU commissioner for home affairs at a press conference on Wednesday.
He called the plan a “revolutionary proposal” that would make Europe a world leader in the fight against child sexual abuse online.
It comes after the EU agreed last month basic rules requiring tech companies to remove hate speech and other illegal content from their platforms more quickly.
Privacy activists fear that the new EU bill could undermine end-to-end encryption, which encrypts messages in such a way that they can only be viewed by the intended recipient.
The proposal is “incompatible with end-to-end encryption and fundamental rights to privacy,” said Joe Mullin, senior policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation digital rights group.
“There is no way to do what the EU proposal tries to do other than for governments to read and scan user messages on a massive scale,” Mullin said. “If it becomes law, the proposal would be a disaster for user privacy not only in the EU but around the world.”
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have long wrestled with tech giants over the potential abuse of encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and iMessage. Several governments are calling for so-called “backdoors”, which would allow them to bypass privacy controls.
“We look forward to working with the EU to inform the legislative process on how to ensure the safety of children, both offline and online,” a spokesperson for Meta told CNBC.
“It is important that any measures taken do not undermine end-to-end encryption that protects the security and privacy of billions of people, including children.”
Although Brussels said the proposed obligations are “technologically neutral”, it warned that the consequences of excluding end-to-end encryption from the requirements would be “severe” for children.
The United States National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates reports that more than half of its child exploitation will disappear with end-to-end encryption, leaving abuse unnoticed.
But privacy activists believe measures to erode encrypted communications would be ineffective.
“The criminals are already using distribution channels that would not be affected by these scans and will easily escape the scans in the future,” Linus Neumann of the German hacking collective Chaos Computer Club told CNBC.
However, supporters of the bill say it is a necessary step to eradicate child abuse on the internet.
The Brave Movement, an organization that fights for the safety of children, said the laws “will ensure the safety of children, adolescents and future generations.”
“In the EU, digital spaces are in some cases completely unregulated, exposing children to the threat of horrific sexual violence and exploitation,” said Wibke Müller, co-founder of the Brave Movement, in a statement.
Müller, herself a child sexual abuse survivor, said technology companies “already have the tools to detect and remove sexual violence materials online” and should “prioritize the safety of children over anything else.”