The Australian government, alongside counterparts from Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have rallied together to declare that the unintended consequences of the new European Electronic Communications Code are putting children at risk.
The new code came into effect in the European Union on 21 December 2020 and is aimed at harmonising the existing legal framework for electronic communications across the EU.
It introduced a new broader definition of "electronic communications services", which compels service providers operating in the EU to comply with the rules of the ePrivacy Directive.
As a result, many over-the-top (OTT) providers and various other telecommunications services that did not previously fall within the definition of the code now do. Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said this would inadvertently make it easier for criminals to abuse children online.
"Under the new Code, it is now illegal for electronic service providers, including social media companies, operating in the EU to continue to use the necessary tools to detect child sexual abuse material on online platforms and services," a statement from Dutton said.
The minister responsible for children in Australian immigration detention facilities said protecting children is the "most important thing we can do as a global community". He said user privacy should not come at the expense of children's safety.
"It is essential that the European Parliament acts urgently and agrees to exempt certain technologies from the 'ePrivacy Directive' and preserve companies' ability to detect and prevent child sexual abuse. This cannot wait," the statement continues. "We support European Union measures that will allow for the continuation and expansion of the current efforts to keep children safe online."
The statement from the five countries said it is essential that the European Union urgently adopt the derogation to the ePrivacy Directive as proposed by the European Commission in order for the essential work carried out by service providers to shield endangered children in Europe and around the world to continue.
"The European Union has a unique role to play in the global fight against online child sexual exploitation. It is essential that the European Union adopt measures that ensure not only the legal authority, but also the practical ability, for providers to use tools to detect online child sexual exploitation," it reads.
Dutton pointed to the Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, which, launched in March 2020, provides a set of 11 actions that tech firms have voluntarily agreed to follow in order to prevent child predators from targeting kids on their platforms.
"The Voluntary Principles rely on the continuation of companies' legal and technical ability to identify and take action against child sexual abuse on their platforms," Dutton said.
He also pointed to the signing of the International Statement: End-to-End Encryption and Public Safety in October 2020 by the Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, UK, US, Indian, and Japanese governments, saying the countries have been working closely with the world's largest tech companies to implore companies to better protect children online.
"The introduction of the Code could undermine this progress and prevent tech companies from using some of the most powerful tools available to combat child abuse on their platforms," Dutton said.