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Cecilia Malmström

Member of the European Commission responsible for Home Affairs

Fighting sexual abuse of children on the internet

EPP hearing on "audiovisual, legal, technical and ethical implications of sexual abuse of children on the internet through child pornography"

Brussels, 1 July 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

Thank you for the invitation to open today's hearing on such an important topic as child sexual abuse online.

Let me start by clearly stating that Child pornography is not one type of pornography in the ordinary sense. Child pornography is about sexual abuse of children. And it is about the worst forms of abuse on the most vulnerable citizens, children. Studies show that the children abused are getting younger and younger and that the offences are getting more severe. The latest report by the Internet Watch Foundation showed that 44% of the images detected online depict the rape or torture of a child. Nearly 80% of the child victims appeared to be under the age of 10, over 20% were images of children under the age of 6.

Child pornography is not only linked to other forms of sexual abuse, there is also a very substantial trade in child abuse material, involving a lot of money. Despite manoeuvres by criminals to disrupt tracking, numerous unique commercial brands have been identified, which are being run as businesses to profit from the sexual abuse of children. This means that some children are being sexually abused in order to sell the images and satisfy a demand for that material.

Victims of child pornography are victims of two crimes. First when the actual abuse that is recorded or photographed. And, thereafter, every time the images are posted, circulated or viewed, a gross violation of their privacy is committed. The testimony of one such victim, mentioned in a report by the Internet Watch Foundation [2006 report], is very telling. Sandra, 16 years of age, says

"I never escape the fact that pictures of my abuse are out there forever. Everything possible should be done to stop people looking at pictures of child abuse. Each time someone looks at pictures of me, it's like abusing me again".

We know Sandra by name. But most children abused are never identified. Images known to law enforcement depict children in the order of tens of thousands. Those identified are in the order of hundreds.

On the basis of these elements, it is clear that all of us have a duty to take action. These horrible crimes simply cannot be tolerated. And as far as the EU is concerned, I am convinced that everything that can be done must be done.

The question is then, what can be done? The answer is clear. Use all the instruments at our disposal for that purpose. These instruments are policy coordination, funding, and legislation.

On policy and operational coordination, the EU has recently stepped up its efforts to fight cybercrime by supporting the development of Member States' alert platforms and a Europol Alert Platform for reporting offences on the Internet. They will reinforce citizens' possibilities to signal illegal or suspicious activities on the Internet to their national authorities, and improve the exchange of information among law enforcement at European level.

On funding, the Commission contributes to the development of the alert platforms at both European and national level. We also support projects related to the fight against child pornography, such as the European Financial Coalition, and capacity-building projects for Member States and industry partners, including cybercrime investigation training, and the development of technical tools for investigations.

When it comes to legislation, as you know, the Commission recently proposed a Directive on sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. This proposal contains a number of elements that should make a difference in fighting sexual abuse of children on the Internet.

I think our proposal is both ambitious and modern: it takes a comprehensive and holistic approach. It includes provisions not only on Prosecution of offenders but also on Prevention of offences and on Protection of child victims.

In order to strengthen prosecution, the proposal asks Member States to criminalise new forms of child sexual abuse and exploitation which have become easier to commit as a result of new technology. This includes grooming through social chat rooms. The proposal includes a comprehensive list of offences and it lays down minimum penalties at national level depending on the gravity of each offence.

The proposal also aims to help law enforcement authorities investigating these offences. Paedophile rings exchanging child abuse images through peer-to-peer networks are particularly difficult to investigate, as they are closed and they often require new members to bring in child abuse images as an "entry ticket". The Commission proposes that the possibility to authorise undercover operations should exist in national legislation, subject of course to national procedures and safeguards.

To protect child victims of sexual abuse in criminal proceedings, the proposal would strengthen access to legal aid and, in some cases, a special representative to help the victim. It would have rules on how police and judicial authorities should be trained in order to conduct interviews in a way which does not create additional trauma for the child.

However, we know that these measures will only apply to the far too few children victims of child pornography offences who are actually identified. We need to improve the effectiveness of police activities aimed at identifying the children. The Commission proposes investigative units to attempt to indentify children victims of child pornography crimes, in particular by analysing photographs or video recordings.

Finally, the Directive seeks to limit the distribution of internet child pornography. The provision dealing with that [Article 21 of the Directive] has attracted quite some attention, in blogs and online debates – perhaps more than it deserves and I would like to explain this provision a bit further:

The Commission proposes to tackle this issue in two ways: it imposes an obligation on Member States to remove child pornographic content from Internet sites at the source; and it requires Member States to ensure that access by users to Internet sites which disseminate child pornography can be blocked.

The Commission is, therefore, not proposing blocking of access instead of, or even as an alternative to, removal at source. Blocking is proposed as a complementary tool. We need both these instruments.

Removal at source is, of course, the best solution; nobody questions that, and proposed Directive itself explicitly recognises that this is so. We must of course do everything possible to take down internet sites spreading child pornography.

But the reality is that removal at source is difficult to achieve in practice, and that it may even be impossible in some cases, because the illegal content is hosted in different third countries, and may even move around between countries from day to day.

I can reassure you that the Commission is – and will continue to - work hard with third countries, both bilaterally and in international organisations, to push for removal at source. In fact, I have personally raised the issue in contacts with the United States and Russia in recent months and I will continue to work with these countries to ensure efficient removal at source.

But, despite efforts from all actors, including the Commission, it is unrealistic to believe that this will change dramatically for the better, in the short or medium term. The economic, technical, legal, practical and political issues are simply too complex. That is why the Commission proposes blocking of access by users as a complementary tool.

I am aware that blocking has been criticised as inefficient and, even, contrary to fundamental rights.

As for its efficiency, I entirely accept that computer specialists and - perhaps even committed amateurs - can circumvent some of the blocking filters used today. But the technology obviously evolves and I am still to be convinced that the majority of child pornography users are computer experts. In fact, a British NGO which treats child offenders reported that at least 50% of their clients have no computer literacy at all. And internet blocking already exists in a number of Member States, including Italy, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The experience of these countries shows that hundreds, or even thousands, of attempts to access child pornography sites are blocked every day.

As for fundamental rights I agree that we should be extremely cautious in regulating the Internet and in blocking access to websites. However, child pornography consists primarily of images of children suffering sexual abuse in real life. This has nothing to do whatsoever with freedom of speech. The proposal does provide legal safeguards for the blocking of access to websites, to ensure that blocking is limited to what is strictly necessary and that it remains fully in compliance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Commission has absolutely no plans to propose the blocking of other types of content.

And, when speaking about fundamental rights, let us not forget the rights of the child! The European Court of Human Rights dealt with the issue of online child sexual abuse (in a case against Finland) – details on a 12 year old boy had been posted on an internet dating site, making him a target for approaches by paedophiles. The Court stressed in this case that States are under a positive obligation to take steps to effectively protect the right to private life of children.

I am convinced that blocking and removal at source together can make a real difference. They will reduce the availability and circulation of child abuse images - making the trade in them less profitable - and limit the trauma experienced by victims' when their images circulate on the Internet. At the same time, they will protect against accidental viewing, giving people the confidence in the Internet they deserve.

I look forward to working with you to bring the debate forward. I am always at your disposal and I hope to see the Directive adopted soon. Thank you very much for your attention!

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