Child abusers and viewers of child sex images on the web would face tough penalties for abuse, exploitation and pornography offences under draft European Union rules as agreed with European Council representatives and approved by the European Parliament's civil liberties committee.
The rules agreed on July 12 2011 would also require EU member states to remove child porn web sites, or, failing that, make it possible to block access to them within their territory, if a member state so decides.
"The new directive to combat sexual abuse and exploitation of children and child pornography is an innovative legislative instrument and represents a step forward for the protection of our children. The text will be at the disposal of the competent authorities and NGOs, so that there is zero tolerance against all crimes against children" said Roberta Angelilli, an Italian MEP for the centre-right European People's Party, who is steering the legislation through the European Parliament.
The draft directive sets out minimum penalties for about 20 criminal offences to do with sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and child pornography - far more than are usually provided for in EU legislation. The draft has been agreed with the Council of Ministers representatives, subject to the European Parliament's plenary vote in September 2011.
MEPs fought for tougher penalties across the EU, especially in cases of abuse by people in a position of trust, authority or influence over the child (for example family members, guardians or teachers) or abuse of particularly vulnerable children (such as those with a physical or mental disability or under the influence of drugs or alcohol).
Offenders could face penalties ranging from one to at least 10 years in prison, depending on the crime (since the draft directive lays down only minimum penalties, EU countries could impose harsher measures and sentencing).
For instance, causing a child to witness sexual activities could be punishable by one year in prison, and coercing a child into sexual actions by 10. Attending pornographic performances involving children could by punishable by at least two years in prison, and forcing a child into prostitution by at least ten. Child pornography producers could face at least three years in prison, while those possessing it would face at least one year.
"Knowingly obtaining access" by means of information and communication technology to child pornography would also be a crime. To be liable to prosecution, a person would have both intend to enter a site containing child pornography and know that such images could be found there.
The European Parliament said in a statement that its negotiating team have, from the outset, advocated complete removal of web pages containing or disseminating child pornography. These web pages must be removed, they say, as blocking access to them, as initially proposed by the European Commission, has proved not to be entirely effective.
Moreover, removal at source would be more reassuring for children, given that images to which access is merely blocked could still be somewhere in cyberspace, they add. MEPs have ensured that the text requires EU countries to ensure the prompt removal of web pages hosted in their territory. They must also co-operate with third countries to obtain the removal of pages hosted outside the EU.
However, the removal of child pornography content at its source is often not possible (for example because the state where servers are hosted is unwilling to co-operate or because removal would take too long). In these cases, EU member states may block access to those pages for internet users in their territory, says the text agreed with the Council.
"Let's be clear: we are not talking about censorship here, we are talking just and only about child pornography - images, photographs, films or clips in which a crime against children is clearly being committed", said Ms Angelilli. These measures to block access to web pages would have to follow transparent procedures and provide adequate safeguards. Users would have to be informed of the reason for the restriction and have the possibility of judicial redress, says the text.
New forms of abuse and exploitation, such as on-line "grooming" (befriending children via the web with the intention of sexually abusing them) or making children pose sexually in front of web cameras, would be a crime.
"Sex tourists" travelling abroad to abuse children would also face prosecution, under new rules on jurisdiction. The text introduces the concept of "child sex tourism" for the first time in EU legislation. Member states would have to ban travel arrangements for the purpose of child sex tourism. Other measures, for example a code of conduct in the tourism industry or "quality labels" for tourist organisations combating child sex tourism, should also be promoted, says the text.
Because about 20 per cent of sex offenders go on to commit further offences after conviction, the text stipulates that convicted offenders "may be temporarily or permanently prevented from exercising at least professional activities involving direct and regular contacts with children". Employers when recruiting would be entitled to request information on convictions for sexual offences against children. Member states would also be entitled to take other measures, such as listing convicted persons in "sex offender registers".
MEPs have also strengthened rules on assisting, supporting and protecting victims, for example to ensure that they have easy access to legal remedies and suffer as little as possible from participating in criminal investigations and trials. MEPs have also added a specific article incorporating child sex crime prevention within the scope of the directive. Studies suggest that between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of minors in Europe may be sexually assaulted during childhood.
The agreement is to be put to the vote in the European Parliament as a whole at the September II plenary session and should be formally adopted by the Council of Ministers soon after that. Once adopted, this directive will replace current EU legislation dating from 2004. EU member states will have two years to transpose the new rules into their national laws. The UK and Ireland have notified their wish to take part in the adoption and application of this directive. Denmark is the only member state not taking part.