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Europe’s ePrivacy Rule Would Limit the Hunt for Online Child Sex Abuse

“The grooming of children for sexual purposes is always about a child on the verge of or in the midst of abuse,” said John Shehan, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the U.S. federal clearinghouse that works with technology companies and law enforcement agencies around the world.

As of September, according to the clearinghouse, 1,020 reports of grooming had come from the European Union. Cases of grooming were reported in all 27 E.U. countries and contained many examples of “sextortion” — when an adult poses as a minor to solicit photos or videos, then uses the imagery as blackmail to further exploit the child.

Diego Naranjo, head of policy at European Digital Rights in Brussels, an advocacy group, said the subject was fraught because anyone who questioned the tech companies’s practices was cast as “somebody who doesn’t care about the children.”

Even so, he said, the tech companies and child protection groups had not made a strong enough case for scanning to justify the intrusion on privacy.

“They haven’t given evidence needed to show this is proportionate,” he said. “We don’t open every letter in the mail to see if there is something illegal.”

The European Data Protection Supervisor, an agency that advises on privacy issues, said clearer safeguards were needed for consumers. Privacy is considered a legally protected human right in the European Union. In an opinion published last month, the agency said “confidentiality of communications is a cornerstone of the fundamental rights to respect for private and family life.”

The tech industry has largely stayed out of the public debate.

While Facebook said it would stop proactive scanning in Europe, other companies have remained quiet. In October, Microsoft filed a declaration with authorities saying that its detection software was used solely to identify child abuse and not for any commercial purpose. But a company spokesman would not indicate if it would stop scanning under the new regulations.