According to statistics online portal Statista, as of January 2020, the number of internet users in the Philippines grew to 73 million people, accounting for more than half of the total population. The digital population mostly belong to the age group of 16 years old and above.
Earlier reports say that this is driven mostly by the availability of affordable smartphones that offer features that other mobile devices offer. While still not classified as a mobile-first nation, the Philippines — like many other countries, for that matter — use smartphones not only for communications but also to access information, watch videos, and play games, among others.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to stay at home when governments imposed lockdowns in an effort to contain the virus, predators and pimps found an opportunity to advance their cybersex trafficking schemes.
Using computers and webcams, the children are directed to strip naked or perform sexual acts. Then there are social media platforms that become a vehicle for indiscriminate sharing of information and other forms of content that are both useful and harmful.
“OSEC is a technology-enabled crime and it relies on existing ‘low-tech’ technologies such as cell phones, basic internet, computers, webcams, messaging services, video communication services, and electronic payment and processing services,” said Atty. Samson Inocencio Jr., VP, IJM Global OSEC Hub and national director, IJM Philippines. “OSEC is primarily a surface-web issue. It is most often conducted through common, everyday technologies we use to keep in touch with loved ones, conduct business and exchange communication — such as social media platforms and video communication services with live streaming capabilities.”
There are efforts from various organizations from the government, private institutions, and non-government organizations to put a stop into the online sexual exploitation of children.
In June 2020, technology companies Google, Facebook, and Microsoft joined the global coalition to “eradicate” online child sexual abuse. Technology Coalition is focused on research and innovation that would allow them to build technology aimed at preventing this crime against children.
Microsoft developed a grooming detection technology designed to detect, address, and report online predators attempting to lure children to sexual exploitation. Called Project Artemis, Microsoft collaborated with technology companies and not-for-profit groups The Meet Group, Roblox, Kik, and Thorn. The tool will be made freely available “to qualified online service companies that offer a chat function.”
In the Philippines, UNICEF, Stairway Foundation Inc., and the Department of Education (DepEd) have been doing a massive information campaign not only to children but also to parents and educators on how to teach children to be extremely careful in the use of technology.
In 2017, the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines (IMMAP) launched a competition that addressed the issue of online safety. “Project Unfriend” by advertising creatives Samantha Teaño and Lea Valenzuela of Ace Saatchi & Saatchi created a video narrating how children openly share personal information with strangers on the internet particularly in messaging apps.
In cooperation with DepEd, IMMAP came up with various campaigns targeting a broad range of stakeholders. Called Project for Keeps, Dalir-Eskwela, and Chatbot, these advocacies are hoped to equip children, parents, and educators of the skills on how to be mindful and avoid prying sexual predators on the internet.
Stairway, for its part, has been relentless in providing teachers, especially in the countryside and urban poor areas, with the right information hoping that online safety would soon be incorporated in the school curriculum.
An Australian-based firm developed monitoring software for parents to mirror what websites children are visiting. Visible Internet is an app that parents can remotely view the same webpages their children are viewing. The creator, however, insisted that it is not designed to be intrusive and that it is best to have mutual consent between parents and children. It can be configured in both parties’ preferences.
PLDT Inc. and Smart Communications Inc.’s Cyber Security Operations Group (CSOG) has been actively identifying and blocking child pornography websites (at the domain-level). But because of privacy issues, the telecommunications firms can only act upon receiving advice from law enforcement agencies such as the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police.
Utilizing its capabilities as a telecommunications provider, PLDT and Smart have also provided connectivity and technical assistance to enable services for the quick reporting of cases of OSEC. The 7444-64 END OSEC Text Hotline was set up by the PNP Women and Children Protection Center and the International Justice Mission.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones said in a cybersafe forum organized by IMMAP a couple of years ago that guardians must safeguard their children online the way they do in real life. For example, parents often tell their children to never talk to strangers. She said that should also be the same reminder they should give to their children when going online.
Ultimately, a more organized, concerted, and targeted effort utilizing the same tools the predators and pimps are using can help put a stop to the atrocity the children are being subjected to. Working together, instead of against each other, may take the issue of OSEC a step forward and may save more children from falling prey into this crime. Using technology to prevent and catch predators must be the immediate goal.