At the age of 11 Jessica was made to stand in front of a camera as a man watched a live feed of her on his computer screen. “He once asked me to get naked for 500 pesos ($11),” said Jessica, now 18 years old.
Jessica’s story is not unique. Each day across the Philippines, girls as young as five years old are directed to perform acts for the pleasure of internet users via webcams. They never see the faces of their online abusers or know their whereabouts, and many of the younger victims do not fully understand what they are being forced to do.
Protected by the anonymity of the internet, anyone with the knowhow and inclination can purchase sexual gratification by paying for services using untraceable pre-paid credit cards. Sometimes the girls and women are asked to strip; on other occasions they are forced to perform more obscene acts.
According to local media in Cebu, an island province in the Philippines, at least 30 children were abused in this way for more than seven years inside the tatty plywood home of Eileen Ontong, who the press dubbed the ‘queen of cyberporn’. Ontong supervised the abuse of children on demand via webcam for payments made through international wire transfer services, until she was arrested last year.
Snapshots of naked children retailed for $50, nudity in front of the webcam cost $100, and a live sex show among children ran as high as $500Bloomberg report
Police estimate that Ontong – who pleaded not guilty to charges of child abuse, child pornography and human trafficking – earned “about $200,000 over the years. Snapshots of naked children retailed for $50, nudity in front of the webcam cost $100, and a live sex show among children ran as high as $500,” Bloomberg reported.
Ontong’s profits also attracted the attention of her neighbours in the village of Ibabao, who were quick to replicate her business. “[It] became a cottage industry in the area because [others] saw Ontong making money,” Abdul Jamal Dimaporo, an agent with the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation, told Bloomberg. “It’s easier to earn a living doing this than working. They don’t think what they are doing is wrong.”
Since 2010, Cebu’s economy has grown faster than the national average, largely due to a boom in the ICT and tourism sectors. But in the shadow of the island’s gleaming office buildings, a global sex trade thrives. The province has long been a source, destination and transit point for child trafficking in the country, and alongside the ubiquitous ‘bikini bars’ are a large number of street children, some of whom are forced to become prostitutes for foreigners and locals. In backstreets dense with pawnshops, bakeries and butchers, internet cafes are mushrooming alongside outlets offering money-transfer services such as Western Union. It is in areas such as this that the business of online child sexual exploitation can be carried out.
Three years ago, 16-year-old Nicole was a victim of online sexual abuse. Her mother told Southeast Asia Globe that, at the beginning, she could not understand her how daughter returned home one day and gave her 1,000 pesos ($22). Nicole’s mother produces and sells ropes of abaca for $17 per month, while her husband earns $4 per day as a fisherman. Having barely $55 a month to sustain a family of four, Nicole got involved in thrice-weekly online sessions that involved dirty talk or nude dancing, thereby doubling her parents’ monthly income.
Nicole worked in the online sex business until her family decided to visit Fellowship for Organising Endeavours (Forge), a local organisation offering alternatives to poor urban families in Cebu. More than 25% of the population in the region lives below the poverty line, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board.
However, it is not only the children of poor families who are dragged into the world of cyberporn – those from relatively affluent backgrounds can also find themselves under pressure to earn what is perceived as easy money, particularly when the children are of school age and parents need to pay for essentials such as uniforms, textbooks and transport.
A recent study conducted by Forge found that 300 children who had been sexually abused online “viewed working in cybersex as a ‘step up’ from traditional prostitution because of the anonymity, and their perception is that there is
a lower risk of physical violence”. In addition, “some parents who are involved in online cybersex assert that it does not pose any harm to their children as there is no physical contact with sex offenders, who are usually foreigners”.
Defined by the UN as ‘webcam child-sex tourism’, it is now recognised as a crime in most countries. Last year, the Supreme Court of the Philippines upheld the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, and divisions within the police force were created and tasked to fight this kind of abuse.
However, webcam child-sex tourism is more often than not regarded an offence perpetrated by the supplier – the producer, distributor or possessor of material. “For the predators, they are considered off the hook since they don’t commit these crimes. This is the very reason why Terre des Hommes is advocating for the inclusion of ‘facilitating’ in illegal acts [as a criminal offence as well],” explained Arnie Fernandez Arquiza, a communications and advocacy officer for the Netherlands-based Terre des Hommes, a children’s rights NGO.
According to the UN and the FBI, about 750,000 paedophiles are online at any given moment. Terre des Hommes estimates that at least 10,000 children have been the victims of online sex offenders in the Philippines alone.
In 2013, researchers from Terre des Hommes developed a virtual ten-year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie. They then traced more than 1,000 predators from 63 different countries, using Sweetie as bait. Three people have been convicted due to this sting and three more charged for online sex conversations with the virtual creation.
The difficulty of prosecuting alleged perpetrators is that they must be caught in possession of images or videos of child abuse. However, most perpetrators tend to live-stream abuse – often using legitimate, mainstream chat sites – so rarely have incriminating materials in their possession. The European Cybercrime Centre confirms that the use of non-commercial sites, such as Skype, is the preferred method of communication.
Despite this, it appears that consumers and suppliers are migrating from traditional payment systems and legitimate internet sites to the new, largely unregulated digital economy and networks. Last year, investigators came across child abuse being sold exclusively via bitcoin for the first time. With criminals constantly staying one step ahead of law enforcement through the use of the latest encryption technology and the darknet – a significant part of the internet that is anonymous and undetectable by search engines – child-abuse networks are becoming ever more difficult to monitor and eradicate.
The Trafficking in Persons Report 2015, released recently by the US State Department, stated that “the [Philippine] government’s efforts to reduce demand for commercial sex acts were negligible”, pointing at “pervasive corruption” as one of the factors hampering efforts to tackle this phenomenon. The report exhorted the Philippine government to “increase efforts to hold government officials administratively and criminally accountable for trafficking and trafficking-related offences through criminal prosecutions, convictions and stringent sentences.”
“There are ways to discourage, warn and scare off [perpetrators] before they commit such crimes,” said Stefan Bogaerts, a forensic psychologist at Dutch Tilburg University who works alongside Terre des Hommes. “They consider themselves immune, untouchable and anonymous, so the police should get a mandate to patrol public areas of the internet as they do in public spaces like streets. The internet should remain free but not lawless.”