“If we, as the EU, can mandate service providers to scan for some content through a backdoor, other states will also be able to say that you have to scan for [something else] through the same backdoor,” says Karl Emil Nikka, an IT security specialist who has debated Johansson on a podcast run by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. He suggests that other countries could use this backdoor to search for content relating to whistleblowers, abortions, or members of the LGBTQ community.
Johansson stresses that this bill is not about privacy, but about protecting children. We should be thinking about the 11-year-old girl who has been coerced into sending someone explicit pictures and is now seeing them circulate around the internet, she says. “What about her privacy?”
This is a difficult debate to have; an ideological battle where child safety and privacy square off against each other. When this has unfolded in other countries, politicians have avoided talking about the grim details of child abuse—expecting that the public would disengage if they did. But Johansson is trying a different tack. She insists on talking about the details—and accuses her opponents of pretending that these problems don’t exist. “We now have robots that send out these grooming attempts to children on a mass scale, this is quite new,” she says. “We also have this livestreaming of children in the Philippines that have been locked into houses, special houses where they are being raped and livestreamed.”
She dismisses concerns by tech companies like WhatsApp that their encryption would be weakened. “Some companies don’t want to be regulated,” she says.
Asked about the technological underpinnings of her bill, Johansson says she thinks legislation will spur companies to innovate. Once technology has been invented that can scan encrypted messages, it needs to be accredited by the EU before countries can deploy it. “If no technology exists, of course you can’t use it. That’s clear,” she says.
WhatsApp has been dismissive about the possibility of developing a technology like this. “I haven’t seen anything close to effective,” Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, told Startup in March. Yet statements like that leave Johnasson unphased. “I’m challenging the big companies,” she says. “And they are strong. They put a lot of energy, probably money, into fighting my proposal. But that’s life. That’s how democracy has to work.”
This is a technical debate about what is possible in the backend of the internet. To make it easier for the public to understand, both sides have resorted to strange analogies to explain whether the proposal is or isn’t sinister. The bill’s supporters compare the concept to the way spam filters in your email read your messages to decide whether they’re junk or a speed camera only sends footage of cars driving over the speed limit to human reviewers. But those in opposition say proposed scanning technology is the equivalent of installing surveillance cameras inside your apartment or allowing the post office to open all letters so they can search for illegal content. “What I fear is, where does it lead to? Where does it stop?” asks Patrick Breyer, an MEP who represents Germany’s Pirate Party. “They will also want to expand it in terms of scope. So why only scan for CSAM? What about terrorism? What about copyright?”