May 20. 2024. 11:01

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With new legislation, EU has the power to defend children from sexual abuse

A decade ago, I saw a documentary about child sexual abuse that showed me horrors I couldn’t unsee. It was eye-opening in the true sense of the word: This crime is a mass phenomenon that despite its global pervasiveness is invisible to most people, writes Ashton Kutcher.

Other problems of this scale, like climate change, trigger immediate political action and broad worldwide awareness. It is with great determination and involvement of the innovators that continue to search for better solutions across the board to make every aspect of our lives more sustainable.

We need the same level of engagement for the safety of children. We as a society and every individual must open their eyes and take action.

Children were being abused at alarming rates, and the rise of the internet was making this horrific crime easier to carry out. I couldn’t look away – so I started Thorn, an organization that builds technology to defend children from sexual abuse.

Now, ten years later, Europe has put forward special legislation designed to defend children from sexual abuse online, which is the cruellest, most unjust breach of children’s privacy and rights imaginable.

This is a groundbreaking and much-needed step toward defending children – but we must collaborate to get it right. We need to leverage our collective expertise across technology, law enforcement, victim support, and all others across the globe who have the ability to keep children safe.

You may wonder why I am interested in legislation crafted in Europe. I’m invested in this policy because it’s become clear that the European Union has extraordinary power to tackle this issue.

Online child sexual abuse like climate change is a global issue with no borders, especially in the digital age. Not many places have adopted specific legislation to address it, and definitely none with as much influence as the EU.

My team at Thorn and I understand that what happens here in Europe in the next few months will determine how the world responds to online child sexual abuse globally. Thorn wants to help – and that’s why we should all pay special attention and ensure we get this right.

As co-founder of Thorn, I feel passionate about and obligated to lend the unique expertise we have built over the past decade to ensure this legislation does what it needs to be effective.

The problem that the EU is set to fight is not a small one: The internet has taken child abuse to an entirely new level, introducing the lifelong revictimization that happens with the viral online spread of abuse material.

New tech has made it much easier for people to groom and abuse children. But it’s important to say that technology is not the enemy. Emerging tech is revolutionizing our lives and improving the ways in which we operate, communicate, and live.

Not only is tech not the enemy, but it can and should be used to make the internet safer for children. Period.

There’s proof that building innovative technology works to defend children from sexual abuse. If we get this legislation right, innovation will only get better, and we’ll make the whole system safer.

I believe that the European Commission is moving in the right direction as the proposal gives legal certainty to companies by clarifying they have to detect child sexual abuse material (CSAM).

The proposal will finally bring greater transparency to the entire tech industry about the actions that companies take to fight CSAM on their platforms. We could also finally see more weight given to things like prevention and safety by design.

To be effective, the proposal must also leave space for innovation, as this crime is constantly evolving and perpetrators are getting smarter and savvier every day.

We can’t just look for existing CSAM – we have to consider how we look for new or unknown material, conversations, and exchanges between perpetrators and victims so we can help kids in immediate danger be brought to safety.

The legislation has to explicitly allow for proactive, voluntary detection. Over the years, we have seen more and more companies detect child sexual abuse material voluntarily. Without allowing these efforts, we risk a massive gap in CSAM detection.

Another important part of this legislation is the development of an EU Centre that would centralize detected CSAM, all the data and work together with law enforcement authorities, and provide necessary assistance and support to victims – similar to other existing centres around the world.

For it to work, it must be given enough resources and the ability to work closely with those in the existing child protection ecosystem.

As I said: This legislation has enormous potential, and we must leverage it. We can’t drop the ball on such a horrific crime or wait for others to find solutions. We need immediate, vigorous innovation and collaboration to defend children from sexual abuse. Thorn is ready to lend our expertise in any way we can.