European Union must close legal gap to protect children from sexual abuse online: UN experts

New York / Geneva, 10 February 2021 – As the world marks Safer Internet Day, UN human rights experts* have urged the European Union to reach agreement on temporary legislation to allow for the continued use of technological tools to tackle online child sexual abuse. Reports prepared by tech companies using these tools have become key elements in law enforcement agency investigations, helping identify, locate and rescue victims, as well as bringing perpetrators to justice.

The implementation of the European Electronic Communication Code (EECC) on 21 December 2020 extended the EU’s communications regulatory framework to effectively ban the use of these tools.

The experts are deeply concerned by the impact on reports of child sexual abuse online.

“This is not a hypothetical problem. This impasse is already having a serious impact on reporting,” said the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Violence against Children, Najat Maalla M’jid. “We know that with fewer reports, there will be fewer investigations. This hampers the ability of law enforcement agencies to do their job and keep children safe.”

The US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has recorded a 46 percent drop in the number of EU-related reports to its CyberTipline submitted by technology companies, comparing the three weeks before and three weeks after the EECC became effective in December.

“The fact that there currently exists no legislation within the EU, that allows for the technology companies to detect and report child sexual abuse online is very concerning to me,” said Mama Fatima Singhateh, the Special Rapporteur on sale and sexual exploitation of children.

“If no agreement is reached to finalise and pass the temporary derogation, many children will continue to be abused with impunity with no hope in sight for assistance.”

“Thus it’s crucial,” urged Joseph Cannataci, the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, that States “review their legal frameworks to enable voluntary action by companies to lawfully and proportionately detect online child sexual abuse while still maximising protection of privacy.” (**)

The experts said the data on reduced reporting is especially worrying given evidence of increased risk to children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Europol has warned of increased activity relating to child sexual abuse and exploitation on both the surface web and dark web.

A law enforcement survey released last month by tech company NetClean confirmed that the pandemic has led to a global increase in online child sexual abuse crime, with two in three police officers reporting that social restrictions and school closures have affected online child sexual abuse crime.

Against this background, the experts urge swift action by the European Union to close the legal gap in children’s protection from sexual abuse online.


(*) The experts: Ms. Najat Maalla M'jidUN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children ; Ms. Mama Fatima Singhateh, UN Special Rapporteur on sale and sexual exploitation of children ; and Mr. Joseph CannataciUN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.

(**) A/HRC/46/37 para. 127 (k). The Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy thematic report examines children’s privacy and will be presented at the 46th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2021.

The UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General is a global independent advocate in favour of the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against children. The SRSG acts as a bridge builder and a catalyst of actions in all regions, and across sectors and settings where violence against children may occur. She mobilizes action and political support to maintain momentum around this agenda and generate renewed concern at the harmful effects of violence on children, to promote behavioral and social change, and to achieve effective progress. 

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The UN Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

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