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Germany: Online child abuse investigators to get more powers

Officials in Germany will soon be able to post fake, computer-generated pornographic images of children when pursuing criminals online. Parliament has approved a raft of new measures, including new "cyber grooming" laws.

Members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, have approved new measures designed to help law enforcement agencies fight the sexual abuse of children online and on the darknet.

The proposals received broad cross-party support on on Friday, albeit with some criticism that they did not go far enough.

What are the main changes? 

The core of the proposals can be found in two changes to the law: 

  • Under strict conditions, investigators will be permitted to use computer-generated material resembling sexual abuse of children on online chatrooms as part of their work.
  • Attempted "cyber grooming" of operatives in sting operations will also be punishable by law in future. Previously, if people tried to groom an investigator or parent who they believed to be a child, it was not a criminal offense.

Read more:  Protect our kids online, German parents demand

What is the legal justification for the changes?

The draft law says posting such material was often required in order to gain entry to child sex abuse chatrooms on the darknet. Operatives wishing to do this will require a judge's approval, and will have undergone special training beforehand. No real people are allowed to appear in the footage.

Watch video 42:34

Cybercrime - The business of fear

Further legislation in the pipeline

"We can never forget that abusive crimes against children lie behind every image of child pornography," said Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The government wanted to give investigators every possible power to ensure that perpetrators — including organizers and operators of abusive websites — could be swiftly investigated and convicted.

Lambrecht also defended the change to the law making it an offense for people to engage in chats with those they believed to be children, on which some opposition politicians had abstained in Friday's vote. "The perpetrators are acting with the same terrible intention, namely to win children's trust with a view to a later act of abuse," she said.

Family Minister Franziska Giffey, also of the SPD, drew attention to planned future legislation on the same issue. 

"To protect children and young people we need more prevention alongside tougher prosecution," Giffey said in a statement. "We will achieve exactly that with the new youth media protection laws, that we've agreed to at a ministerial level and should be passed later this year."

These draft laws will oblige online companies to improve their protections for children in a variety of different ways — "and anyone who fails to make provisions [to meet the draft law] will have to reckon with hefty punitive fines," Giffey said.

NGOs: Still more to do, not least to help victims

"The changes to the law are another important and positive signal," Julia von Weiler, director of the NGO Innocence in Danger, which works to combat child sexual abuse around the world, told DW. "Even politics has finally understood the gigantic dimensions of child pornography online." However, she noted that law enforcement resources to combat this issue remained insufficient. 

Julia von Weiler — director of the NGO Innocence in Danger

Von Weiler said that the political class had 'finally realized' it needed to act after two prominent recent cases in Germany

"The probability of being caught is still very small. The perpetrators, male and female, know that very few public servants are on their tails. But still, perhaps now they will be a little more intimidated."

Von Weiler, a trained psychiatrist, also said more attention must be paid to counseling and other psychiatric services for boys and girls who have been victims of abuse and require "competent advisers."

She also pointed to two recent, prominent cases in Germany as the reason for action in parliament — the discovery of a large amount of child sexual abuse material in Bergisch Gladbach last October, which has sprawled into a nationwide investigation, and revelations of years of child sexual abuse at a campsite in Lügde

Read more:  Psychiatrist: Child abuse can cause mental disorders

The German Children's Fund charity (Deutscher Kinderhilfswerk) welcomed the measures as a good first step but said further changes were needed.

"Besides these changes to the laws, more investigators for the police and the prosecution services are required to better protect children from cyber grooming online," the charity's vice president Anne Lütkes said. Lütkes also lobbied for greater efforts to educate children about the dangers online and how to avoid them.

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