The European Commission’s proposal for a law to fight child sexual abuse material online could unleash a massive new surveillance system, benefiting only tech companies and not children. 

The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) is debating recent allegations indicating conflicts of interest with regard to the proposed regulation with the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson.

The Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) law was presented in May 2022, but media investigations have revealed that strong lobbying from a complex web of groups, including Thorn, who enjoy a close working relationship with Ylva Johansson, the Commissioner in charge are driving forces behind this proposal.

Thorn, an American organisation that is the main advocate for this legislation, develops artificial intelligence tools to scan for child sexual abuse material online. 

According to the proposal, AI tools such as “Safer” by Thorn and “PhotoDNA” by Microsoft would be needed to scan chat messages. There is no independent evaluation to clarify these tools’ accuracy, as the Commission based its proposal solely on the tech lobbying companies with almost no independent expert input. The Left is concerned that this law would oblige providers of chat apps to scan all messages with software about which little is known. 

Academic assessments pointed out that the AI tools needed would, in fact, not perform well and would produce many false results. For instance, there could be cases of people accused of disseminating child sexual abuse material, when they, for example, were just sending photos of their child’s birthday party. 

At the same time, documents from meetings between the European Commission and Europol, as revealed by the media, show that Europol wants unlimited access to the data that would be obtained under the new proposal, which could include such false results. 

Left MEP Cornelia Ernst (Die Linke, Germany) declared: 

“I believe it is of crucial importance that we get answers from the Commissioner today. This house needs full transparency and clarity on possible conflicts of interest behind this proposal. We cannot allow the European Commission’s proposals to become a money-printing machine tech for giants selling dubious AI software. Neither can the Parliament vote on its position before all possible conflicts of interest are cleared up and everything’s out in the open. 

That is why our Civil Liberties committee has tasked Parliament’s research services to deliver a briefing investigating the web of relationships of commercial actors behind Thorn and the other lobby groups that are mentioned in the media investigations. Moreover, we have said it from the start: the CSAM proposal is no solution to the problem, but a tool for mass surveillance. To fight child sexual abuse online we have to focus on proper law enforcement measures instead, and introduce a clear obligation to delete such material from the internet.”


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