CSAM: Is It Time To Age Gate The Web? – Social Media
As digital platforms cater to an ever-increasing user base,
service providers and regulators are increasingly cognizant of the
addictive nature of the services online, and their delivery to the
end users. Children are now the focal point of discussions
attending practices, which has catapulted regulatory scrutiny and
The precipitation of digital support structure, owing to the
social distancing measures and onset of Covid-19 related lockdowns,
was felt across social media channels, digital gaming, online
chatrooms, wearable and connected devices. The mere ease and
convenience afforded by these “alternatives” induced
reliance, dependance and consequential addiction to these
new trends. For children, these changes are more pronounced, and
seemingly renders them susceptible to irreversible physical,
psychological, social, and economic harms.
The Humans Rights Watch issued a dedicated report1 on the
data collection practices of EdTech platforms which indicated
excessive data collection and data sharing practices employed by
EdTech platforms, without any sight of user or guardian consent.
These findings are ever-present across territories and demonstrate
the use of conscious or passive use of invasive technologies to
profile children and facilitate them as targets for personalized
marketing schemes. All the information that is being generated to
this end, creates a vulnerability for the user [in this case a
child] to become searchable and reachable.
Child Sexual Abuse Material
At this juncture, it is highly improper to no longer consider
the absolute and real threat of availability of child sexual abuse
material (CSAM) over the internet. At a time when
the internet is evolving into a system which replicates a physical
experience onto the virtual world, good and bad experiences will
co-exist, and the susceptibility to be caused harm, in the form of
sexual humiliation, is real. These concerns are exacerbated in
cases of interactions for children, where the end objective is to
ensure that their psychological and physical well-being is
Recent studies state that there is a spike of about 25% in
demands for child sexual abuse material (CSAM);
which could be attributed to a rise in the number of digital
products and services directed at and availed by children. With
increased ease of access provided to sex offenders online, to
engage with such children; these findings point towards the urgent
need for coaction between guardians, online service providers and
regulators alike to sanitize the digital space and create an
age-appropriate environment for all users.
As regulators prepare for discussions on pending statutory
proposals to ensure online safety, there is an urgent need to
assess the technologies available at hand to address such concerns,
against the risks it will carry to the fundamental right to data
privacy of children online.
In the United States of America, the US providers are obliged to
report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
(NCMEC) under US law when they become aware of
child sexual abuse on their services. The EU law as it stands today
[also as an interim measure till August 03, 2024]2, necessitates
voluntary reporting, and hence, member states took into onto
themselves to create and prepare for national rules to fight
against online child sexual abuse. Unlearning from these
experiences, the Indian legislators implemented the Information
Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code)
Rules, 2021 (IT Rules) which mandate social media
intermediaries with a significant user base, to deploy automated
tools to identify CSAM and [similar] profane images, while
having regard to the interests of free speech and expression,
privacy of users. To acknowledge the need for accelerated
redressal and removal of CSAM, the IT Rules have shortened the
timeline for removal of such content and proposes use of
technologies to enable the identification of the originator of such
The European Commission has proposed a new legislation3
(EU Proposal) to combat child sexual abuse online
and imposes obligation on service providers to assess the risk of
their services’ misuse for the dissemination of child sexual
abuse materials or for the solicitation of children
(grooming) and propose risk mitigation measures.
The presence of chat rooms, voice calls, and livestreams is a
service-agnostic feature of a website today and allow predators to
initiate contact with young children and direct them to indulge in
inappropriate acts in real time with minimal digital tracing.
Further, designate national authorities in EU, upon review of the
risk assessment reports, may issue a detection order, which will
require the service provider to use EU recognized technologies to
screen their platform for CSAM. Detection orders are limited in
time and intended to target a specific type of content on a
specific service. The rules further require application stores to
assess the risk of onboarded applications for the purpose of CSAM
dissemination and grooming and take reasonable measures to identify
child users and prevent them from accessing it. The Regulation
imposes the obligation upon service providers, to determine the
methods for such detection exercises, and use technologies which
are the least privacy-intrusive and are in accordance with the
state of the art in the industry.
In addition to such targeted legislations, online service
providers are required to comply with their compliances under the
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), similar
data protection statutes, to use privacy-centric tools to ensure
legitimate and proportional collection of children information.
Drawing from the requirements of the GDPR, the EC member states and
entities would resort to conducting impact assessments4 and
related exercises to make these determinations, perform a balancing
The detection and removal of CSAM is an issue of public
interest, and lawmakers have sought to address concerns and impose
obligations, in a targeted manner, having regard to the nature of
services, and their intended audience. However, are there
technological tools available to address such concerns, or is
privacy centric detection a painful oxymoron?
Technology at Hand
Anonymization, encryption, cloud storage allows offenders to
circulate CSAM, evade detection by law enforcement agencies; the
connectivity presented by Internet of Things (IoT)
offer opportunities for interaction between sex offenders and young
children, and grant them access to information on the personality
traits, behavior, and location of the children.
Platforms implement artificial intelligence and machine learning
systems to ensure efficiency and accuracy, in detection, monitoring
and removal of CSAM5. On the enforcement side,
cryptographical hash algorithms are used for file identification
and evidence authentication in digital forensics, by assigning a
hash or numeric value to the content. By creating databases of
hashed CSAM, new material can quickly be matched against already
Search engines and similar service providers use automated web
crawlers, to search and index for CSAM content, and implement risk
mitigation steps. Anti-grooming technologies evaluate, review
conversations between users to detect toxic user behavior, or any
potential grooming action, and are being widely used by service
providers with child – targeted offerings (re: gaming industry)6.
CSAM detection requirements are service agnostic and call for
wide-spread and excessive screening of content by service
providers, as per the applicable laws. This requires online
platforms to sidestep end-to-end encryption, which will invariably
have a negative impact on users’ privacy. Access to
communication content on a general basis, to detect CSAM and
grooming, is excessive, disproportionate, and liable for
mismanagement. Much recently, report7 of a father being flagged by a
CSAM tool deployed by Google, led to an unforeseen circumstance,
which unfurled a long winding investigation, and where the
father’s activities in connection with his Android/ Google
linked accounts (contacts, images, e-mails) were accessed. This was
pursuant to the family making an attempt to share an image of their
own child’s groin area with the healthcare practitioner for
want of medical care; and ended up being ensnared in an algorithmic
system which was designed to flag peoples exchanging CSAM. It is
important here to note that while the images were explicit in
nature, they were surely not exploitative, it was the lost
context which led to an innocent man being reported to law
It is also important that alongside the deployment of tools,
there is human intervention for making effective determination
before recommending criminal investigations, law enforcement
measures being initiated against an individual for possession of
When Apple made suggestions to commence and implement its own
new suite of tools for scanning of images on a user’s phone
before the same is uploaded onto the cloud, for detection of CSAM,
to ensure that the entire device is not always subject to scan and
unwarranted intrusions into the user’s device, or
their cloud storage accounts8; it faced a lot of backlashes.
Apple’s proposal to enable a function to scan for CSAM on a
user’s handheld device, to match against a database of hashed
CSAM images had to be withdrawn amidst surveillance concerns
presented by regulators and privacy activists alike9.
The use of age verification, age assessment measures to identify
child users, introduced by the EU proposal, may be a proportionate
scheme to address CSAM, grooming concerns; however, identification
and enforcement will represent a challenge to authorities, with
children, young adults inclined towards misrepresenting their age
online, to avail services/ offerings which restrict access.
Technologies which facilitate facial, audio recognition to estimate
user age, are historically error-prone, whereas age verification
against government issued identification, credit information is not
a foolproof methodology for age verification. All these methods
have varying success, but none have mastered a combination of
privacy, efficiency, and affordability yet.
Given the converging manner of services, roles of service
providers online, the law must be technology agnostic, future proof
in order to create a uniform standard of responsibility upon
service providers. To that end, the EU Proposal proposes the
establishment of an EU Centre, which will collaborate with industry
stakeholders, lawmakers to develop standards, make available
technologies for content detection; this will alleviate the burden
on the small providers. Furthermore, the EU Centre will give
feedback on the accuracy of reporting and help service providers
improve their internal processes.
The usage of age tokens, single use QR code created by verifying
the age of an individual against government records is being
trialed in Australia to grant users access to gambling, alcoholic
beverage, and pornographic websites10. Solutions which allow for these
codes to be created and implemented across sectors, by
interoperable platforms, will enable smaller players to be able to
onboard these tools without requiring a comparable market presence,
technical wherewithal, or financial capabilities, as that of the
Organizations must take proactive steps towards the
implementation of a privacy by design technical
infrastructure within their networks, to ensure proportionality of
data collection of minor and major users alike. Taking a leaf out
of the existing policy structure around data privacy which requires
that new tools, measures are implemented after a thorough impact
assessment is created, it is important that private and public
entities carry out similar exercises in making determination about:
(i) efficacy of the tool in monitoring and detecting CSAM; (ii) any
surveillance, intrusion that is percolating to the users’
lives; (iii) if there is an effective mitigation measure, to
overcome any erroneous determinations; and, (iv) if human
involvement in making a final determination is necessary.
The requirement for having human involvement is necessary, for
the fact that the tech giants are acting as sentinels for the
purposes of disclaiming any liability, and in turn allowing their
suites of tools make the determination for either flagging an
individual, denying them access, or making reports to the
enforcement agencies. To perform an appropriate balancing act, is
the order of nature, and that too must be replicated into the
last accessed on September 08, 2022 at 1003 hrs.
Sexual Abuse Directive, and Regulation (EU) 2021/1232 on combating
online child sexual abuse. Regulation 2021/1232/EU of the European
Parliament and of the Council of 14 July 2021 on a temporary
derogation from certain provisions of Directive 2002/58/EC as
regards the use of technologies by providers of number-independent
interpersonal communications services for the processing of
personal and other data for the purpose of combating online child
sexual abuse (Text with EEA relevance).
Proposal For A Regulation Of The European Parliament And Of The
Council Laying Down Rules To Prevent And Combat Child Sexual Abuse;
also accessible at: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/resource.html?uri=cellar:13e33abf-d209-11ec-a95f-01aa75ed71a1.0001.02/DOC_1&format=PDF.
’19: The World Wide Web Conference; Rethinking the Detection of
Child Sexual Abuse Imagery on the Internet; p/ 2601-2607; also
accessible at: https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3308558.3313482;
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