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Mónika MERCZ: Privacy and Combatting Online Child Sexual Abuse – A Collision Course?

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) and the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) adopted a Joint Opinion on the Proposal for a Regulation to prevent and combat child sexual abuse on the 29th of July, 2022. While this has not made huge waves in the public discourse, we must take a moment to discuss what this stance means for how we view data protection in relation to child protection, and specifically fighting against online child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The International Data Protection Day seems like a good occasion to contribute to this debate.

The Proposal’s aim was to impose obligations when it comes to detecting, reporting, removing and blocking known and new online CSAM. According to the Proposal, the EU Centre and Europol would work closely together, in order to transmit information regarding these types of crime. The EDPB and EDPS recommend that instead of giving direct access to data for the purposes of law enforcement, each case should be first assessed individually by entities in charge of applying safeguards intended to ensure that the data is processed lawfully. In order to mitigate the risk of data breaches, private operators and administrative or judicial authorities should decide if the processing is allowed.

While child sexual exploitation must be stopped, the EDPB stated that limitations to the rights to private life and data protection shall be upheld, thus only strictly necessary and proportionate information should be retained in these cases. The conditions for issuing a detection order for CSAM and child solicitation lack clarity and precision. This could unfortunately lead to generalised and indiscriminate scanning of content of virtually all types of electronic communications. But is our privacy’s safety truly worth the pain suffered by minors? Is it not already too late for our society to try to put privacy concerns first anyway? I believe that this issue is much more multifaceted than would seem at first glance.

There are additional concerns regarding the use of artificial intelligence to scan users’ communications, which could lead to erroneous conclusions. While human beings make mistakes too, the fact that AI is not properly regulated is a big issue. This fault in the system may potentially lead to several false accusations. EDPB and EDPS shared that in their opinion “encryption contributes in a fundamental way to the respect of private life and to the confidentiality of communications, freedom of expression, innovation and growth of the digital economy.” However, it must be noted that more than one million reports of CSAM happened in the European Union in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a factor in the 64% rise in such reports in 2021 compared to the previous year. This is cause for concern, and should be addressed properly.

In light of these opposing views about the importance of individuals’ rights, I aim to find some semblance of balance. The real question is: how can we ensure that every child is protected from sexual exploitation, perpetrators are found and content is removed, while protecting ourselves from becoming completely transparent and vulnerable?

  1. Why should we fight against the online sexual exploitation of children?

First of all, I would like to point out how utterly vital it is to protect children from any form of physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Protecting children is not only a moral issue, but also the key to humanity’s future. I would like to provide some facts, underlined by mental health experts. We know that any form of child sexual exploitation has short-term effects including exhibiting regressive behavior; performance problems at school; and an unwillingness to participate in activities. Long-term effects include depression, anxiety-related behavior or anxiety, eating disorders, obesity, repression, sexual and relationship problems. These serious issues can affect people well into adulthood, culminating in a lower quality of life, thus enabling members of society to become less productive.

In addition to these serious psychological consequences, the fundamental rights of victims are infringed, such as the human rights to life, health, personal freedom and security, as well as their right not to be tortured or exposed to other inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment, as guaranteed by the UDHR and other international laws. In addition to the efforts made by countries that ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, I also must mention the United States Supreme Court decision and lower court decisions in United States v. Lanier. In this case we can see that in the US’s interpretation, sexual abuse violates a recognized right of bodily integrity as encompassed by the liberty interest protected by the 14th Amendment. Although this American finding dates back to 1997, it does not strip the statement from validity in our online world.

To speak about the legal framework governing the issue in my home country, Hungary, the Fundamental Law also protects the aforementioned rights. Article XV under “Freedom and Responsibility’” states that “(5) By means of separate measures, Hungary shall protect families, children, women, the elderly and those living with disabilities.” While this is an excellent level of protection, I would propose that we need to add the part “Hungary shall take measures to protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation”, or even if we do not add it into our constitution, we must make it a priority. Act XXXI. of 1997 on the Protection of Children and the Administration of Guardianship is simply not enough to help keep children safe against new forms of sexual abuse, in particular, online exploitation. With the dark web providing a place for abusers to hide behind, what options do we have to expose these predators and recover missing children?

A study explored a sample of 1,546 anonymous individuals who voluntarily responded to a survey when searching for child sexual abuse material on the dark web. 42% of the respondents said that they had sought direct contact with children through online platforms after viewing CSAM. 58% reported feeling afraid that viewing CSAM might lead to sexual acts with a child or adult. So we can see that the situation is indeed dire and needs a firm response on an EU level, or possibly even on a wider international level. Sadly, cooperation between countries with different legal systems is incredibly difficult, time-consuming and could also lead to violations of privacy as well as false accusations and unlawful arrests. This is where several of the concerns of EDPB and EDPS arose in addition to the data protection aspects mentioned before.

  1. Avoiding a Surveillance State

Having talked about the effects and frequency of child sexual abuse online, I have no doubt that the readers of this blog agree that drastic steps are needed to protect our most vulnerable. However, the issue is made difficult by the fear that data provided by honest people wishing to help catch predators could lead to data protection essentially losing its meaning. There are many dire consequences that could penetrate our lives if data protection were to metaphorically “fall”. It is enough to think about China’s Social Credit System and surveillance state, that is a prime example of what can happen if the members of society become transparent instead of the state. Uncontrolled access to anyone’s and everyone’s data under the guise of investigation into cases of online abuse could easily lead to surveillance capitalism getting stronger, our data becoming completely visible and privacy essentially ceasing to exist.

Right now, personal data is protected by several laws, namely the GDPR, and in Hungary, Act CXII of 2011 on the Right of Informational Self-Determination and on Freedom of Information. This law is upheld in particular through the work of the Hungarian National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information. The Fundamental Law of Hungary also upholds the vital nature of data protection in its Article VI (3)[1] and (4)[2]. I advise our readers to take a look at the relevant legal framework themselves, but I shall focus on the pertinent data-protection aspects for the sake of this discussion.

There are several declarations by politicians and institutions alike that reinforce how essential this field of law is. This is of course especially true in the case of the European Union. As has been previously stated in one of our posts here on Constitutional Discourse, by Bianka Maksó and Lilla Nóra Kiss, the USA has a quite different approach. But can we justify letting children go through horrific trauma in order to protect our personal information? Which one takes precedence?

  1. A moral issue?

On the most basic level, we might believe that our information cannot be truly protected, so we might as well take a risk and let our data be scanned, if this is the price we must pay in order to protect others. But are we truly protecting anyone, if we are making every person on Earth more vulnerable to attacks in the process?

The Constitutional Court of Hungary has long employed the examination of necessity and proportionality in order to test which one of two fundamental rights need to be restricted if there is collision. I shall defer to their wisdom and aim to replicate their thought process in an incredibly simplified version – as is made necessary by the obvious limitations of a blog post. My wish is to hypothesize if we could justify infringement of data protection in the face of a child’s right to life/ development.

First of all, I shall examine if the restriction of our right to data protection is absolutely necessary. If the right of children not to suffer sexual exploitation online (which, again contains facets of their right to life, health, personal freedom and security, as well as their right not to be tortured or exposed to other inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment) can be upheld in any other – less intrusive but still proper – way other than giving up data protection, then restricting privacy is not necessary. While experts’ opinion leans towards the point of view that privacy must be upheld, I would like to respectfully try to see it from another side. Currently we are trying to implement measures to stop online child abuse in all its forms, but it yields few results. The issue is growing. Many claim that a form of cooperation between law enforcement, hackers, different countries and many other actors could lead to curbing this crime further. Could we ever completely stop it? Probably not. But could we uphold their right not to be tortured or exposed to other inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment and to a healthy development? Maybe.

I put forward the idea that at this point we have no other, more effective measure to stop online child sexual abuse other than restricting our own protection of personal data to a degree – child protection is a public interest and protecting our posterity also has constitutional value. Additionally, the Fundamental Law of Hungary contains in its Article I (3) that “(…) A fundamental right may only be restricted to allow the effective use of another fundamental right or to protect a constitutional value, to the extent absolutely necessary, proportionate to the objective pursued and with full respect for the essential content of that fundamental right.” As I have argued, child protection is undoubtedly of constitutional value and could warrant the restriction of data protection. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court of Hungary has established that privacy protection is also of constitutional value.[3]

As the second step of the test, based on my previous observations, I must wholeheartedly agree that data protection should only be restricted to the most indispensable extent. Because both of these issues are so intertwined and difficult to balance, we could have a new policy specifically for cases where CSAM is sought by looking into personal data. I firmly believe that this solution could be found, but it would require establishing new agencies that specifically deal with aspects of data protection when it comes to cases like this. The prevalence of this material on the Internet also makes it necessary for us to update laws which are about the relationship of privacy and recordings of CSAM.

I cannot think of a better alternative right now than a slight restriction of privacy, even with the added risks. The way things are progressing, with the added weight of the global pandemic, inflation, war and climate change will lead to more children being sold and used for gain on online platforms, which are often untraceable. Are we willing to leave them to their fate in the name of protecting society as a whole from possibly becoming more totalitarian? Are we on our way to losing privacy anyway?

These are all questions for the future generations of thinkers, who may just develop newer technologies and safer practices, which make balancing these two sides of human rights possible. Until then, I kindly advise everyone reading this article to think through the possible consequences of taking action in either direction. Hopefully, on the International Day of Data Protection, I could gauge your interest in a discussion which could lead to concrete answers and new policies all across the EU in the future.

Mónika MERCZ lawyer, is a PhD student in the Doctoral School of Law and Political Sciences at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, Budapest. A graduate of the University of Miskolc and former Secretary General of ELSA Miskolc, she currently works as a Professional Coordinator at Public Law Center of Mathias Corvinus Collegium. She is a Member of the Editorial Board at Constitutional Discourse blog.


[1] (3) Everyone shall have the right to the protection of his or her personal data, as well as to access and disseminate data of public interest.

[2] (4) The application of the right to the protection of personal data and to access data of public interest shall be supervised by an independent authority established by a cardinal Act.

[3] Hungarian Constitutional Court Decision 15/2022. (VII. 14.) [24]

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