EU privacy laws will protect paedophiles seeking to groom children online

Charles Hymas
Online abuse - PA

New European laws on privacy will protect paedophile groomers seeking to abuse children online, the NSPCC has warned.

The children’s charity says proposed new rules, due to be considered by a European Council working group today (thur), will put the privacy of paedophiles ahead of children’s online safety.

They say the so-called e-privacy directive will ban tech firms and investigators from identifying and intercepting online communications by paedophiles seeking to contact children unless the suspect consents to it.

“If the e-privacy regulation as currently drafted was implemented, then all firms would be prohibited from proactive detection of grooming and it would stop other firms from being encouraged to do it,” said Andy Burrows, the NSPCC’s head of child safety online.

The new directive is designed to prevent tech firms and other bodies from misusing or exploiting “any information transmitted or exchanged online.” 

“Such data should always remain confidential, and any interference with the communication of that data, either directly by a human or through automated processes, without the consent of the user, is prohibited,” it says. 

Firms that fail to abide by the regulation face fines of up to €10 million or two per cent of worldwide annual turnover for minor incidents and up to €20 million or four per cent of turnover, for more serious breaches, whichever is higher in both cases.

Lobbying by the Home Office and children’s charities secured an exemption that allows firms to hunt down and intercept child abuse images - defined as “child pornography” in the directive.

However, efforts by tech companies and investigators to search for and intercept grooming communications are not excluded.

There have been more than 5,000 crimes of sexual communication with a child since online grooming became a specific offence two years ago. There was almost a 50 per cent increase in offences year on year.

“It is an unfortunate consequence of the European Commission’s overarching belief that tech firms should not be able to access the content of our messages unless there is a very clear compelling and urgent reason for them to do so,” said Mr Burrows.

“That’s why we had an uphill battle to get a carve out on child abuse images. It’s the concern that the Commission has about tech firms using and monetising our data.”

There could be an opt-out if Britain passes a proposed duty of care law requiring tech firms to protect children from online harms with a specific resolution on grooming. 

There is a provision within the European directive for the domestic law of any nation to over-ride it. The Conservatives, Labour and LibDems have committed to such legislation but it is unclear when it could be introduced.

The Government delayed its immediate introduction as part of the Queen’s Speech by instead proposing consultationon a draft bill, expected in the Spring.