The EU Strategy for a more effective fight against child sexual abuse offers a framework to respond in a comprehensive way to the increasing threat of child sexual abuse, both in its online and offline forms. This strategy will be the reference framework for EU action in the fight against these crimes for the 2020-2025 period.
Why do we need a stronger response?
Child sexual abuse has life-long consequences for victims. It often goes undetected, as children are abused by perpetrators within their closest circle of trust, undercutting their basic confidence in those who are charged with protecting and supporting them. When the abuse is also recorded and shared online, the violation continues as long as perpetrators share these images and videos online, often for years. Victims have to live with the knowledge that the images and videos of the crimes showing the worst moments of their lives are being circulated and anyone, including friends or relatives, may see them.
In the last years, we have seen both a significant number of cases of child sexual abuse in the EU Member States and a dramatic increase in reports of child sexual abuse online, both globally and in the EU. Furthermore, according to the Internet Watch Foundation, the EU has become the largest host of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) globally (from more than half of global CSAM in 2016, to more than two thirds in 2019).
Behind each image and video, there is a real child being abused.
The Internet provides anonymity and an environment in which abusers can interact and find a community that reassures them that their criminal aims are OK, or even incites them to do more. They can, exchange materials, and build their own community. It also fuels demand for child sexual abuse material. There are closed groups where an ‘entrance fee’ in the form of new, unseen child sexual abuse material is required.
The EU fights against these crimes in multiple ways, including through coordinated international police actions in which Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre is a key player. Some recent examples include:
- an investigation in Italy with more than 50 suspects,
- the arrest of a 30-year old individual who released videos showing the violent sexual abuse a pre-school aged girl,
- the arrest of a nursery school teacher and her partner suspected of sexually abusing several children including their own,
- the arrest of a suspect who produced explicit videos of a young boy to gain access to sites and forums on the dark web dedicated to child sexual abuse and exploitation.
However, it is likely that investigations only show the tip of the iceberg. The Bergisch-Gladbach investigation in Germany, started in October 2019, shows the massive scale of these cases. Over 40 victims have been identified to date, and hundreds of thousands of images and videos found. Offenders used messenger services (including WhatsApp) to share materials, incite each other and share tips. One such discovered chat groups had 1800 participants. To date, investigators, while still in the initial phases of analysis of devices, have already discovered more than 30,000 leads pointing to all regions of Germany, and have identified more than 50 suspects.
Influence of the COVID-19 crisis on the scale of child sexual abuse
The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the problem of child sexual abuse. During the lockdown, children were often more isolated and spent more time online often, sometimes without proper supervision from their parents and carers. This, together with the fact that sexual predators also spent more time online, put children at higher risk of becoming victim of online abuse such as grooming or sextortion.
There are indications that the demand for child sexual abuse material went up by 25% in some Member States. The US National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) registered a four-fold increase in reports of suspected child sexual exploitation during April 2020 compared to April of the previous year.
Europol, through its European Cybercrime Centre, has been monitoring the situation, and supporting the work of law enforcement inside and outside the EU. It has published a number of reports that provide a strategic overview of COVID-19 related crime. Recently it has released a report examining the sexual abuse and exploitation of children online and related offline crimes, with a particular focus on how offenders have used their time during confinement to increase children’s vulnerability.
Europol has also developed, in collaboration with international partners, Online Safety Advice for Parents and Carers to help keep children safe online during the pandemic.
The long-term effects that the pandemic has had on how offending patterns and the trends of consumption of child sexual abuse material is yet to be seen. Certainly, it has hastened the move towards broader online presences of both abusers and children.
What are the obstacles to combatting child sexual abuse?
As reported to the US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the number of reports of child sexual abuse online concerning the EU grew from 23,000 in 2010 to more than 725,000 in 2019, which included more than 3 million images and videos. A similarly dramatic increase occurred globally: from 1 million reports in 2010 to almost 17 million in 2019, which included nearly 70 million images and videos. The large number of reports of child sexual abuse online strains law enforcement resources, both human and technological, to process and take action on them.
Global nature: The exponential development of the digital world has made this crime a truly global one, and has unfortunately contributed to the creation of a global market for child sexual abuse material. Child sexual abuse material is shared online across borders. In addition, offenders travel to third countries to take advantage of circumstances such as poverty, and weaker law enforcement responses to sexually abuse children.
Technological development: offenders have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of technology. The introduction of end-to-end encryption, while beneficial on the one side to ensure privacy of communications, also enables child abusers to share and trade images and videos with impunity, and incite each other to provide new abuse. Moreover, technology has allowed for the monetization of abuse. Abusers can easily pay to participate virtually in the sexual abuse of children via live-streaming and to access platforms dedicated to child sexual abuse on the dark web.
What does the strategy bring?
Real progress can be made only when efforts are stepped up in all relevant areas – in a true multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary approach. To achieve this, the Strategy makes use of all the tools at EU’s disposal, both legislative and non-legislative, namely coordination and funding. Its goal is to drive action from all key actors, including law enforcement, social services, health-care professionals, educators, child protection authorities, the judiciary, as well as private entities, in particular industry and civil society.
The strategy sets out eight concrete initiatives, making use of all tools available at EU level. It has three-fold focus on a more effective law enforcement response, better support for victims, and improved prevention.
Actions focused on legislation
- Work closely with Member States to implement fully the Child Sexual Abuse Directive;
- Ensure that EU legislation enables an effective response. In particular, in relation to child sexual abuse online:
- In a first stage, as a matter of priority, the Commission will propose the necessary legislation to ensure that providers of electronic communications services can continue their current voluntary practices to detect in their systems child sexual abuse after December 2020.
- In a second stage, by Q2 2021, the Commission will propose the necessary legislation to tackle child sexual abuse online effectively including by requiring relevant online services providers to detect known child sexual abuse material and require them to report that material to public authorities.
- The Commission will shortly launch an extensive study to identify legislative gaps, best practices and priority actions at EU level in the fight against child sexual abuse online and offline.
Actions focused on funding and cooperation:
- Provide funding to support the development of law enforcement capacity to keep up with technically-savvy abusers. Europol will set up an Innovation Hub and Lab supported by Commission funding to facilitate the development of national capacity to remain abreast with technological developments and ensure an effective law enforcement response against these crimes.
- The Commission will create a prevention network at EU level to facilitate the exchange of best practices and support Member States in putting in place usable, rigorously evaluated and effective prevention measures to decrease the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the EU.
- The Commission will launch immediately a study to work towards the creation of a European Centre to prevent and counter child sexual abuse to enable a comprehensive and effective EU response against child sexual abuse online and offline.
- Under the EU Internet Forum, the Commission has launched an expert process with experts and industry to map and preliminarily assess, by the end of 2020, possible technical solutions to detect and report child sexual abuse in end-to-end encrypted electronic communications, and to address regulatory and operational challenges and opportunities in the fight against these crimes.
- The Commission will continue contributing to the development of global standards for the protection of children against sexual abuse by promoting multi-stakeholder cooperation through the WePROTECT Global Alliance, and through dedicated funding.
What can you do to join the fight against child sexual abuse on the online?
Take action if you accidentally encounter suspected child sexual abuse images or videos, including sexually explicit images of a child. You can report anonymously through the INHOPE network of hotlines.
According to the 2019 Eurobarometer, 21% who of respondents who stumbled upon such content contacted the police, while almost as many (20%) say they contacted the website or vendor. While this is an increase compared to previous years, there is room for improvement when it comes to reporting from Internet users.
Talk to your children about online safety. It is important to not only monitor and restrict the use of the Internet, but to have an open discussion about the risks of, for example, sharing nude photos. You can find more information on how to talk to children about being safe online on Europol pages dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse during COVID-19 pandemic, and the Say No! campaign.
Hotlines are available for individuals with a sexual interest in children to help them control their fantasies from becoming a destructive reality.