The benefits of new technologies are rippling across Southeast Asia. However, the region is also becoming a marketplace for child abuse imagery as foreign buyers connect with marginalised and impoverished communities.
By Oliver Ward
This week, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) met in London to explore responses from the private sector and international governments to the rising tide of child sexual abuse taking place online.
The inquiry has placed the issue at the forefront of the public vernacular once again. This dark side of the internet is of particular concern to ASEAN nations. With populations coming online in unprecedented numbers, widespread poverty and low computer literacy, ASEAN’s children are vulnerable to online predators.
New technologies bring new dangers
The advent of new technologies, including untraceable cryptocurrencies, live streaming platforms and encrypting solutions have led to increased risks for ASEAN’s children. Europol has identified live streaming as a major threat to children online.
In 2017, the Internet Watch Foundation found online abuse imagery had increased by a third from previous levels. Pay-as-you-go streaming services have connected predators with child abusers and desperate families in Southeast Asia. The viewers pay to watch abusers perform sexual acts on children, or children perform sexual acts alone.
The anonymity these sites offer the viewers has created a market for the online sexual abuse of children. Because this content is being consumed live, there is no recording on the viewers’ computer available for use as evidence, hindering the detection and prosecution of perpetrators.
François Xavier Souchet of the Thai NGO, Terre des Hommes, said: “Predators watch the rapes on large platforms that are not likely to close.” He added, “everything is encrypted. They pay more and more in Bitcoins, encrypted money makes their transactions as secure as possible.”
Cassie, a victim from the Philippines described how her mother’s employer forced her to carry out sexual acts with an adult male in front of a webcam when she was just 12 years old. “I felt trapped, betrayed and alone. I was thinking, ‘I want to die, I want to die because of this pain, but I can’t’.”
Her abuser was convicted in 2017 and received a two-year jail term.
ASEAN is becoming a hub for online abuse
High smartphone penetration combined with extreme poverty create the conditions for a profit-driven abuse market to prosper. Many children are forced to perform sexual acts online by family members and neighbours to generate revenue.
The Philippines is a production hub of child sexual abuse material. It now exports some US$1 billion of child sexual exploitation material annually across the globe.
In Indonesia, predators use Facebook to lure children into sex trafficking. An estimated 25% of all missing children in Indonesia were lured to their captors through the social media platform. The same pattern of behaviour is visible in Vietnam where foreign paedophiles are increasingly finding their victims online.
Rob Evans, an expert on child sexual abuse for the UK’s National Crime Agency said: “There is an increasing threat to children in developing countries where safeguarding capabilities cannot keep pace with advancing technologies, and this threat is likely to grow.”
Where does responsibility lie?
Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook have all provided the IICSA with evidence collected from their platforms. Many will argue that it is up to these digital giants to improve efforts to prevent their platforms being used as a vehicle for abuse.
However, while these companies will have a crucial role to play in any solution, the problem of child sexual abuse transcends the tech landscape. It is rooted in social, economic and civil issues, and any solution will have to go beyond policing the digital landscape to address the wider issues surrounding child abuse.
A multi-pronged approach designed to harmonise legislation, increase digital literacy and increase collaboration with the private sector is necessary to tackle online child abuse in the region.
A transnational problem requires a transnational solution
Legislation across the region must be aligned to avoid the creation of “safe havens” for digital predators. Currently, only Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have laws against child grooming online. In Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand Myanmar, and Vietnam there is still no legislation criminalising grooming online.
The criminalisation of grooming is an essential component of any prevention strategy. ASEAN’s legislative alignment on this matter would strengthen legislation and provide authorities with a valuable tool in prosecuting predators before abuse occurs.
The region would also benefit from a concerted strategy to improve digital literacy and educate internet users in online safety. A campaign to improve awareness of the techniques and methods online predators use would give parents, guardians and caregivers the knowledge to identify online child sexual exploitation and take measures to prevent it from developing into abuse.
The Malaysian government, through its Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, is already focusing on digital safety and is collaborating with civil society, non-governmental organisation (NGOs) and the private sector to improve safeguards for protecting children online.
Finally, the private sector will be an essential ally in attempts to combat online child sexual exploitation. Banks, credit card companies, digital payment systems, and fintech firms will play a key role in following the money and bringing predators to justice.
Protecting children starts in communities
The largest barrier to regional efforts lies within the communities themselves. Abuse often takes root in communities that are economically and socially marginalised. These communities are often distrustful of government bodies and law enforcement.
One way to make inroads in these communities could be to make children a central stakeholder in protection methods. Embedding children’s voices and concerns in education efforts would empower them to protect themselves. For example, a community mentorship program run by children, for children, might lead to more children reporting abuse or grooming. Children interact more candidly with other children than they do with adults and embracing child-led approaches could bridge the information gap.
Rob Evans knows what communities are up against. “Where there is vulnerability, paedophiles will seek it out,” he said. But he also sees room for hope. “This is a growing threat but this is being matched by a growing awareness.”
The IICSA is helping to draw global attention to these heinous crimes. It will be up to ASEAN and its member states to develop a comprehensive response that brings all stakeholders together and reaches marginalised communities.