Move slow and leave things broken

On 20th December, 2020, a new EU-wide law took effect. An unintended consequence appeared to call into question the legality of companies continuing to look for child sexual abuse materials being exchanged over messaging platforms. It also appeared to call into question the legality of companies identifying images which were likely to be child sexual abuse material or behaviour suggesting a child might be being groomed for a sexual purpose. Companies had been doing some or all of this on a voluntary basis since 2009 so it was a bit of a bombshell.

Over 90% of all the reports pertaining to these kinds of threats to children that were made to the authorities in the USA originated either on Facebook Messenger or Instagram Direct but the child victims involved came from every corner of the globe. Messenger and Instagram have enormous reach.

Facebook, the company that owns both platforms, has one of the worst reputations among Big Tech for law breaking or for contesting the law if it does not suit their business model. But not here. At the stroke of midnight on 19th December, 2020, everything ground to a halt. Eventually this lead to a 58% drop in reports coming from EU Member States. There was no suggestion any fewer children were being abused or exploited. The only difference now was the police had no possibility of intervening because the reports had dried up.

Other companies that had been in exactly the same boat did not stop looking. These included Google, Microsoft and Snapchat. Not exactly online minnows. Their level of reporting remained unaltered. As Sophie in’t Veld MEP pointed out during a debate in the European Parliament, after 20th December there was never any real legal risk attaching to any company carrying on protecting children as they had done before.

On 29th April the EU announced an “interim derogation” (temporary suspension to you and me) of the potentially troubling law. The expressly stated purpose of the suspension was to restore what everyone had understood to be the status quo ante.

Nearly two weeks on I enquired if Facebook had shown the same eager speed and determination to restart the measures they had abandoned so punctiliously.

The answer is not only “no they have not”, it is also the case that as of now they have no definite date by which they will. Why?

Several reasons were given to me. None of them are credible. First they have not yet seen the final, official text. That needs to be endorsed and published in the Official Journal of the EU. However, like the rest of us they have seen the text that appeared on the EU’s official web site.

Then, seemingly, they need to study the official text to ensure they are meetings its terms.

After that the company’s engineers have to be engaged because, while turning it off could be done by flipping switch, apparently turning it back on cannot.

Facebook’s unconvincing, ostensible turn to lawfulness, its abundance of caution, comes at a price. Children are paying it.

“Move slow and leave things broken”. How does that sound as a new company motto?

Have they really no shame?

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised.
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