By John F. Clark, President and CEO
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Online child exploitation is a crime that does not abide by borders. You may not realize it, but the European Union is about to surrender in the worldwide battle to protect children if we don’t stand up to prevent it from happening. As you read this, decisions are being made that prioritize efforts to secure an absolute right to privacy above stopping the sexual exploitation of children.
Child sexual exploitation is a disturbing topic that most people don’t want to think about. But for hundreds of thousands of children throughout Europe, the United States and the rest of the world, it is a daily reality. Regulations passed by the EU have global consequences, which would compromise the safety of children everywhere.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children operates the CyberTipline, which for over two decades has served as the global hotline for reports relating to child sexual exploitation. The constant, and ever-escalating volume of horrific child sexual abuse reported to NCMEC is staggering. So there is no uncertainty regarding the nature of this content – these are photos and videos of young children, many so young they cannot ask for help, being raped, sexually tortured, and exploited. Their anguish and abuse is memorialized and shared online with countless users with a sexual interest in children. NCMEC receives reports from around the world - and Europe is home to some of the most horrific.
- In Germany, an infant boy was sexually abused by his legal guardian and tech companies have detected and removed these graphic images and videos from the internet more than 1,900 times.
- In Amsterdam, a childcare worker admitted to sexually abusing more than 83 infants and toddlers in his care. Images and videos of the sexual abuse have been shared on the internet nearly 12,000 times.
- Across the US, eleven boys, ranging in age from 6 to 10, were rescued after being raped and trafficked by a neighbor for over five years. Images and videos depicting the exploitation were produced in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida and California by a male trafficker over seven years. The images of their abuse have been traded online thousands of times.
- In Hawaii, four boys and girls between the ages of 1 and 6 years old were rescued after three years of abuse by their babysitter. The images of their abuse have also been traded thousands of times.
The global fight against these atrocities relies on a complex arsenal of human review and technology tools created in partnership with technology companies, child advocacy organizations and law enforcement. These tools are used to surgically identify imagery depicting child sexual abuse and other forms of online exploitation, giving these children hope of rescue and protection. But these critical, life-saving tools are now at risk, without action from members of the European Parliament. It’s up to members of the public across the world to stand together to tell global leaders not to sign away children’s safety in the name of privacy.
Beginning on December 21, an element of the EU’s ePrivacy Directive will go into effect with no explicit exception that allows tech companies to continue using the technology that detects online child sexual exploitation. Even though this is an unintended result of the ePrivacy Directive, its supporters are pushing towards the effective date with a focus on privacy concerns that shows little or no regard for the impact on children. It is NCMEC’s belief that everyone is entitled to privacy, however the sexual assault victims depicted in this illegal imagery should be given the highest priority.
But there is hope - if you get involved. The European Parliament is currently debating an exception to this law which could prevent a global catastrophe. With this “interim regulation,” tech companies will still be able to use these tools until a more permanent solution can be reached.
Without a solution in place to safeguard children, the ePrivacy Directive could close the curtain to the abuse of children that happens online. We know this issue is hard to talk about, but the numbers cannot be ignored. NCMEC has received more than 82 million reports of child sexual exploitation. What’s worse than facing this uncomfortable reality? Knowing that this horrific abuse is happening but never hearing about it at all.
Survivors of these horrific crimes may feel powerless, but you can act now to help protect them. No matter where you live, even in the United States, you can add your name to our petition to the European Parliament to accept the interim regulation until 2025 at change.org/childsafetyfirst.
But don’t stop there. Share this critical message with your friends, family, and colleagues and encourage them to join us in this fight.
We have to act now. Children across the globe are counting on us.