Who does the EU legislator listen to, if it isn’t the experts?

There's a huge gap between the advice given by experts on combatting child sexual abuse and the legislative proposal of the European Commission.

By Bits of Freedom (guest author) · March 15, 2023

Ask the experts!

Take, for example, the proposal of the European Commission on how to combat child sexual abuse. There are inherent risks in the proposal; not only will the proposed measures be barely effective, they will also have very harmful side-effects. They will also undermine the privacy of everyone’s communications, which is harmful for everyone, including the children and youngsters that lawmakers want to protect in the first place.

But if these aren’t the right measures, then what are? Because sexual abuse of children and youngsters is a serious problem. This calls even more urgently for measures that are proven effective and legally sound, preferably without any negative side-effects. We are not experts in fighting child sexual abuse. Thankfully, we don’t have to be. There are plenty of experts out there, including in the Netherlands. We should listen to these experts if we want to know what needs to be done.

Experience and knowledge

Bits of Freedom has been listening to renowned experts on how to combat child sexual abuse. There is the National Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings and Sexual Violence against Children (NRM) in the Netherlands. At the request of the Dutch government, this organisation offers advice on how to prevent and combat sexual violence against children. Or there is the Sexual Assault Center. This acts as a haven for victims of sexual assault or rape to get the help they need: forensic, medical and psychological. The organisation employs a team of doctors, nurses, police, and other aid workers to offer specialist care for victims of sexual assault and rape. All these people are experts in fighting child sexual abuse, and possess a wealth of experience, knowledge, and ideas on how to best help these victims.

Prevention as a priority

If you listen to the recommendations that these organisations have made over the past few years, a few things stand out. Firstly, most interventions are aimed at prevention. This makes sense, because everyone prefers to avoid sexual violence over having to deal with the consequences. But the proposal by the European commission is aimed squarely at curbing the spread of material containing child sexual abuse. Let’s be clear: that spread is harmful and must be dealt with. However, the prevention of abuse should always get priority, especially when so much material is going round, as the European commission would have us believe. This only strengthens the case to focus more on prevention.

Secondly, expert advice rarely centers on deploying technology. Experts never view technology as a magical fix. Their proposed measures are almost always much more complex because the real problem is complex by nature. The lack of a holistic approach to this problem – caused by poor coordination between different stakeholders who each have their preferred approach – cannot be fixed by slapping a digital Band-Aid on it. Young victims must get fitting help for their situation, which prevents their trauma from getting worse by a bad support system. There’s no app for that. The European Commission’s proposed blunt legal instrument of snooping on every message by every user of certain services is a very different approach.

Expert advice is also backed by solid research. Take the report by the NRM. It pointed out the haphazard way that pupils are commonly taught about sexual development and sexual violence. There are over forty teaching methods, but only sixteen of these have been officially approved. These are explicitly named and described. This is a cut above the sloppy, superficial, one-sided, and sometimes even demonstrably wrong motivations the European Commission can offer in support of its proposal.

Who does the legislator listen to?

It is perfectly understandable when the legislator says: if not this, then what? Bits of Freedom, as an organisation that stands up for digital human rights, has only a limited say in the matter. It’s the experts on fighting against sexual abuse who legislators should listen to. In the Netherlands, these experts include the the NRM or the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, who have researched this area thoroughly. Organisations like the Sexual Assault Center or Victim Support Netherlands who work in the trenches, helping victims of all ages, every day are also important voices we should listen to. These people can rightly be termed experts, with their wealth of experience, knowledge, and ideas on how victims are best helped, and new victims can be prevented.

If the European Commission chooses to ignore their recommendations, then who do they listen to?

This article was first published by Bits of Freedom.
The translation
of the article was provided by Jesper Sprengers. Celeste Vervoort translated the accompanying research.

Contribution by: Rejo Zenger, Policy Advisor, EDRi member, Bits of Freedom