Encrypted messenger services have been quick to condemn the Commission’s proposal. Julia Weiss, a spokesperson for the Swiss messenger app Threema, says the company was not willing to undermine its users’ privacy in any way. “Building a surveillance system to proactively scan all private content was a terrible idea when Apple proposed it, and it’s a terrible idea now,” added Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, in a Twitter post. In August 2021, Apple announced a proposal to scan its users’ photos for child sexual abuse material but, after intense criticism, indefinitely delayed those plans a month later.
But Europe’s home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson has been dogged in her pursuit of this law. “I’m prepared to hear criticism from companies, because detecting child sex abuse material and protecting children is maybe not profitable, but it’s necessary,” she said in a press conference Wednesday. Tools used to carry out any scanning have to be the least privacy-intrusive technology and they have to be chosen in consultation with data protection authorities, she added.
Johansson’s proposal does not define what type of technology these companies should use to scan messages. The reason for this, the commissioner says, is so the legislation does not go out of date as new privacy-friendly solutions are invented. Her supporters say the law will also incentivize companies to dedicate more resources to creating the tools they will later be mandated to use. “I am more and more confident that if the environment is correct and if there is a normative legal framework that will protect children and adolescents, then companies and solutions can be created and generated that can eliminate this crisis,” says Paul Zeitz, executive coordinator of Brave Movement, a group that represents survivors of childhood sexual violence.
But privacy groups say this approach means basing legislation on impossible technology. “It doesn’t matter how many times Commissioner Johansson says in public that you can scan encrypted messages safely and with full respect for privacy,” says Jakubowska. “That doesn’t make it true.”
The regulation still needs sign-off from the European Parliament and EU member states, which could take years. But critics, including Germany’s federal commissioner for data protection, Ulrich Kelber, have pledged to stop the current proposal. “Since some points will result in solutions that deeply interfere with fundamental rights, the regulation should under no circumstances endure in this form,” he said on Thursday.
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Yet Johansson remains unperturbed. In an interview with WIRED, she describes the fight against child sexual abuse as a cause that feels very personal. “As a mother, I feel obliged to protect my children,” she says. “As an adult, I’m obliged to protect all children. And as a politician, when I have the power to propose legislation to protect children, I think I’m morally obliged to propose that legislation.”
Other members of the European Parliament have accused Johansson of bringing an emotional intensity to the debate which has made it difficult to criticize details in the law without being made to feel they don’t care about children suffering from child abuse.
However, the commissioner can claim supporters among survivors of child sexual abuse, who say they are impressed by her strong rhetoric and plain language around subjects that still feel taboo.
“It feels very good when you’re a survivor to have a political leader, who is very powerful, talk about shame, talk about trauma, talk about the impact of child sexual abuse,” says Mié Kohiyama, a French survivor of child sexual abuse who is also part of Brave Movement, which was set up earlier this year. “It’s so important for us.”
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