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Germany forces EU into damage control over encryption fears

It hasn’t even been a month since the European Commission proposed a new law to crack down on child sexual abuse online, but the plan is already facing serious challenges from the bloc’s largest member country. 

The German government in the past weeks repeatedly slammed the bill as an attack on privacy and fundamental rights, with its digital minister Volker Wissing warning this week that the draft law “crosses a line.”

The opposition from Berlin prompted the EU’s Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson to step in Friday, in an effort to limit the damage and appease the European heavyweight.

The EU’s proposal “is much more targeted” than the current regime to scan for illegal images and “will allow only companies to do detection after a court decision or another independent authority have decided so after consultation with data protection authorities and with specific technologies that have been approved” by a new EU center to be set up in The Hague, Johansson said at an impromptu press conference in Luxembourg on Friday afternoon.

The Swedish EU commissioner spoke alongside German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, whom she met twice since Wissing spoke Thursday, and insisted on Faeser’s “strong support” as a mother, an adult and a politician. 

Faeser said that “the initiative, from the German point of view, we support this,” but added that “for us, it’s important to find the balance” between the right to confidential communication and cracking down on child sexual abuse material.

Presented in May following many delays, the rulebook wants to force tech companies — including messaging apps like Whatsapp, Apple and Instagram — to scan, remove and report illegal photos and videos of kids’ sexual abuse. Courts could also order digital companies to hunt down manipulative conversations between potential sex offenders and children, known as grooming. 

Eighty-five million videos and images of sexually abused kids were produced last year, according to the U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Because of a lack of regulation, the number is likely to be vastly underestimated. 

The proposal includes a new independent EU center coordinating the fight against the sexual exploitation of children that could be set up in The Hague and work alongside Europol.  

But, while welcoming stronger action to protect victims of online abuse, a swath of German government ministers has nevertheless piled on to lament that the Commission’s approach could effectively result in mass surveillance of people’s private messages and undermine encryption. 

Echoing worries from digital rights activists, Wissing, a Liberal and minister responsible for digital affairs and transport, on Thursday said the plan went against previous legal rulings and pledged to “resolutely stand up warrantless chat control and the circumvention of the end-to-end encryption.” Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Faeser also repeatedly threw shade at the law in recent weeks, arguing that the solution to protect kids wasn’t to “check every private message.” 

The law is only at the beginning of the long EU legislative process and has yet to be discussed in the EU Council, representing the 27 EU countries, and in the European Parliament. 

Laurens Cerulus contributed reporting.

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