The European Commission has proposed updated rules that expand the definition of child sexual abuse and lengthen the statute of limitations.
The revision of the 2011 directive, unveiled on Tuesday afternoon, attempts to close the loopholes opened by the sudden advent of artificial intelligence, which has enabled criminals to produce synthetic images of child abuse and evade law enforcement.
One in every five children in Europe is estimated to be a victim of some form of sexual abuse or exploitation. The scourge is pervasive and insidious: 1.5 million cases were reported in 2022, compared to one million in 2020.
“With the high speed of development of the digital area era, we really need to keep up the pace,” said Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, who said the framework would be “future-proof” to avoid submitting a revised text every time a new technology disrupts the market.
Under the updated directive, the definition of child sexual abuse is significantly expanded to prosecute the production and dissemination of deepfakes and AI-generated material, as well as the live-streaming of abusive acts.
The new rules also aim to crack down on so-called “paedophile handbooks,” manuals that describe how to approach, coax and manipulate children and later hide the evidence.
According to Johansson, only two out of the 27 member states currently treat the production and distribution of these handbooks as a punishable crime. The revised directive will criminalise them all across the bloc.
Additionally, Brussels wants to expand the statute of limitations to give victims greater time to report the abuse and bring perpetrators to justice. The statute for the most serious offenses will run for at least 30 years after the victim comes of age.
“Sarah was a young ice skater when she was raped (for) two years by her coach, who kept her under hold,” Johansson said, recalling the experience of a victim.
“She had 30 years of repressed memory and many other psychological hardships that made it impossible for her to report. When she was finally able to speak (up), it was too late because of the statute of limitations in France.”
The proposal will now undergo negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament, a process set to be slowed down by the June elections.
Tuesday’s announcement comes amid a prolonged legislative battle over a separate law that lays down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse online, which would oblige digital providers to scan private communications between users, including encrypted messages, to detect and report unlawful content.
The regulation, unveiled in May 2022, is vehemently opposed by digital rights advocates, who claim it will instigate a mass surveillance regime and spell the end of digital privacy as we know it. But supporters say failure to pass the law would leave criminals undetected and Big Tech unchecked.