Protection of children should always trump protection of privacy

As Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, with almost three decades of experience working across the disciplines of privacy, security and online safety, I have never been more fearful for the safety of children online than I am right now.

Indeed, the world stands at a critical crossroads where the fundamental rights of children to live without fear of online sexual abuse literally hang in the balance. 

The clear and present danger, and the focus of my fear, is the application of the new European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) which will take effect later this year.

Media coverage so far talks glowingly of how this code will finally deliver a one-size-fits-all legal framework to harmonise electronic communications across the European Union.

Sounds great on paper, but has anyone checked the fine print?

What the world is hearing less about is the fact this new code, in the name of privacy and data protection, will outlaw the use of technological tools like PhotoDNA, one of the key frontline weapons used by online platforms, regulators and law enforcement the world over to detect, report and remove child sexual abuse material from the internet.

And the effects of this decision will likely extend beyond EU borders, setting a precedent for other regions and countries around the world to follow.

I can say with great sincerity that the unintended consequences of such a decision to outlaw the use of this technology to combat child sexual abuse material would be utterly devastating.

In Australia alone, we have seen an 129% increase in child sexual abuse material reports to our hotline over the March to September lockdown period.

In our conversations with European INHOPE colleagues, as well as with INTERPOL and Europol, we know they have also detected huge increases in these abhorrent crimes against children.

My many decades of experience working at the intersection of security, privacy and safety, has shown me how they often exist in a powerful – but necessary – tension.

While there is a palpable tension between them, there is no reason they should be mutually exclusive.

But let’s be honest, safety has always been the poor cousin no one in the family wants to talk about.

Time and time again, governments and the technology industry have prioritised privacy and data protection over safety, and it’s time we all drew a line in the sand.

We need to establish global online rules and frameworks, and when we are formulating them, safety needs to finally be let out of the cupboard under the stairs and given an equal seat at the family table.

The last thing anyone wants is a continuation of the regulatory “splinternet” of different laws between countries and regions, making it all too easy for the tech industry to hide behind inconsistencies instead of standing up and joining the fight against child sexual abuse material online.

Cooperation with industry is essential if we want to succeed in eradicating child sexual abuse online.

Advances in technology, such as machine-learning and artificial intelligence, have the potential to radically transform the online landscape.

It really should be a global imperative to encourage innovation and use every technological weapon at our disposal to protect children and young people from these most heinous crimes.

By prohibiting their use, the abuse of children will be allowed to continue unabated, obscured behind an online wall of secrecy.

What reasonable human being would prioritise the right to privacy of a paedophile over the safety, dignity and fundamental human rights of the child they are abusing?

As a global community we can’t afford to lose this fight, because the cost to all of us – particularly our most vulnerable – is just too high.