The Maastricht Diplomat

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  • Rhiannon Read

Turn your camera on Sweetie

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Technology is a form of power that evolves in service of humanity, in service of the masses. Modern technology saw the creation of the internet. An intricate, delicate, sculpture of threads, bejewelled with endless questions, answers, social platforms, and inventions. The internet constructed a global system with no single centralized governance, allowing the masses to forge their own businesses, judiciary, and unified worlds. It made the world smaller and stimulated a new form of power straight into the hands of those who would manipulate it for their own benefits. The internet wasn’t designed to protect the vulnerable. They are exploited by the internet, hidden amongst its webs and, yet, the masses, we, are blind to the predators who use the internet to abuse and capitalize on those most defenceless.

Stories of paedophiles often circulate public media. Stories where they exchange material on the ‘dark web’ or groom children in chat rooms, sometimes to meet them in person and physically take advantage of them. In recent years the United Nations has been warning of a phenomenon growing towards webcam child sex tourism. Together, the UN and the FBI estimate that 750,000 men are looking online for webcam sex with children at any given time of the day… even as you read this now. 

Webcam child sex tourism contains the real-time transmission of child sexual abuse to viewers in unknown locations. Its cross-border character makes it harder to prosecute suspects and initiate investigations as it continues to face obstruction over jurisdictional conflicts. The live streaming of child sexual abuse is a growing international plague that provides easy access to child-abuse images and encourages the abuse and sexual exploitation of children, however, it remains a relatively low-risk crime for offenders as webcam performances leave little to no traces which law enforcement can use. Webcam child sex tourism appears in every corner of the internet from online chat rooms, communication apps with video chat features to social media platforms. Whether the viewer is passive (e.g. pays to watch) or active in requesting specific physical and/or sexual acts to be performed on and/or by a child they are still an active presence on the internet and are becoming harder to hold accountable. 

According to the International Watch Foundation (IWF), the Netherlands entertains 71% of the child’s sexual abuse content found by their organization in 2019. This is an increase from IWF’s 2018 findings where the Netherlands entertained 47% of all known child sexual abuse material. Countries with high economic instability, such as high levels of poverty, job instability, and unemployment, have been identified by major organizations (IWF, UNODC) as stimulators of webcam child sex tourism. While higher economically stable countries, such as the Netherlands, turn a blind eye to their citizens driving the popularity of webcam child sex tourism retaining their motives to serve the masses and neglect the vulnerable. 

The ‘supply’ of webcam child sex tourism is determined by the ‘demand’ in the west. Poverty acts as the main driving force for children in less-developed countries being exploited via webcam. Recent technological advancement is threatening to turn a long-term nationwide endemic into a global pandemic with the Philippines at its core. The Philippines has been named by UNICEF to be “the global epicentre of the live-stream sexual abuse trade”.

The sheer volume of Internet data, the number of online platforms, and available digital technologies on the market have made it easy for predators to hide in plain sight. The traditional investigative techniques of child sexual exploitation and abuse are simply not enough. The need for advance and new technological solutions to reduce the amount of time it takes to identify perpetrators and victims, while removing child sexual exploitation and abuse material, is vital to stopping this problem. This has led non-governmental organizations to turn technology against the perpetrators in pursuit of justice for these children.

The international children’s rights organization Terre des Hommes initiated the ‘Sweetie’ Project in 2013 in response to the aggressive increase of webcam child sex tourism. Sweetie is a ten-year-old girl from the Philippines who sits in front of a webcam every day performing sexual acts for men alongside tens-of-thousands of other children. The only difference is that Sweetie is not real. She is a computer model who is used to find and communicate with sexual predators online with the goal of publicly exposing them and notifying law enforcement agencies. Developed in the Netherlands, the ‘Sweetie’ project displayed the degree and culture of the live streaming of child sexual abuse globally and that their approach was ultimately working. In the first two months of the project, they managed to identify 1,000 child sexual predators, however, with over 40,000 public chat rooms, millions of potential paedophiles still feel untouchable and unobserved. The ability to contact children for sex over the internet is still too easy. 

The internet maintains itself as an abyss of lawlessness, evil, and exploitation. The current search for futuristic programs of detection through technology is vital in combatting the live streaming of child sexual abuse. Therefore, due to the success of the virtual girl ‘Sweetie’, Terre des Hommes, alongside international specialists, is programming a new globally suitable software system to eradicate this phenomenon. ‘Sweetie’ 2.0 aims to recognize and block millions of potential perpetrators on an international scale. 

Scientific research has been conducted on the impact of this approach and the research has already shown many positive effects. Following increasing awareness, the United Nations has placed the issue high on their agenda and, in the Philippines, children have been slowly rescued from the dark crevasses of the internet. But despite amassing stockpiles of detailed personal data on predators the resulting prosecutions have been thin in reality. Despite the rise in global awareness and public infuriation, these men, these predators, can still go unpunished.  

With the growing expansion of the Internet and with the decreasing prices of the Internet, it will get increasingly easier, not just for the western world, but for the developing world to live stream sex with children. This means there will be more victims and there will be more children exposed to this epidemic. Therefore, the use of technological advancements, such as ‘Sweetie’, to battle webcam child sex tourism and child exploitation and abuse online are the future to eradicating this pandemic.  

Email Address: journal@myunsa.org

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