Google, Meta and other online service providers will be required to find and remove online child pornography under proposed European Commission rules, a move some privacy groups say could put people's communications at risk.
Companies that fail to comply with the rules face fines up to 6% of their annual income or global turnover, which will be set by EU countries.
The EU executive said its proposal announced on Wednesday aimed to replace the current system of voluntary detection and reporting by companies which has proven to be insufficient to protect children.
It cited the more than one million reports of child sexual abuse in the 27-country bloc in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic a factor in the 64% rise in such reports in 2021 compared to the previous year. On top of that, 60% of child sexual abuse material worldwide is hosted on EU servers.
"The proposed rules introduce an obligation for relevant online 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)," the Commission said in a statement.
The companies will then have to report and remove known and new images and videos, as well as cases of grooming. An EU Centre on Child Sexual Abuse will be set up to act as a hub of expertise and to forward reports to the police.
The rules will apply to hosting services and interpersonal communication services such as messaging services, app stores and internet access providers.
The Commission's proposal could endanger end-to-end encryption and open the door to authoritarian surveillance tactics, lobbying group European Digital Rights said.
Meta subsidiary WhatsApp echoed the same concerns.
"Incredibly disappointing to see a proposed EU regulation on the internet fail to protect end-to-end encryption," Will Cathcart, WhatsApp head, said in a tweet.
"It’s important that any measures adopted do not undermine end-to-end encryption which protects the safety and privacy of billions of people, including children," a Meta spokesperson said.
The draft EU rules need to be thrashed out with EU countries and EU lawmakers before they can become law.