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When a child is porn

Philippines became the latest country to ban the viewing of pornography online

Last weekend the Philippines became the latest country to ban the viewing of pornography online as the government banned access to a number of adult websites popular with Filipino ‘porngazers’. In Asia, this puts it in the company of China and fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Indonesia and Thailand.

Some observers attributed it as simply part of the general effort by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to clean-up society. But the target here is far more specific than that. It is to protect the most vulnerable and most easily exploited members of that society – children.

The Philippines has a wretched reputation as a market leader in the international child-sex industry. For a start, it’s recognised as the top destination for what’s called ‘webcam child-sex tourism’ – real-time trans-globe video streaming of sex acts by children for paying customers often thousands of miles away. According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child the Philippines has become “the global epicenter of the live-stream sexual abuse trade, and many of the victims [there] are children”. And there’s plenty of evidence to support that.

And so, despite the inevitable snipes by civil-liberties groups that this is yet more evidence of Duterte’s dictatorial credentials – and of course lawyers, ever on the look out for potentially lucrative litigation prospects – the Internet-porn ban is to deliver what it says on the can: To Stop Child Sex Abuse. To impose it, the Philippine National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), a Department of Information and Communications Technology agency, invoked the – under-utilised in our opinion – 2009 Anti-Child Pornography Law.

Local Internet service providers, Smart and Sun Cellular, blocked the sites of Pornhub, Xvideos, Redtube and others. Partly what may have prompted this was a survey released a week earlier by Pornhub. This showed that its Philippine viewers were its most avid for the third consecutive year – 12 minutes a visit compared to a global average of 9 minutes and 36 seconds. Pornhub claims to get 89.8 billion views annually. Let’s put that in perspective for you: that’s nearly 12 views a year for every man, woman and child on Earth.

That survey release, however, may have turned out to be a terrible piece of marketing. Now, Pornhub’s vice president, Corey Price, is in damage-control mode: “We’re open to working with government officials to meet their standards in the Philippines,” he said – a plea that’s likely to go unheard. (We have to admit we were unaware that the government had standards for pornography). But worry not, Price is unlikely to become a government consultant.

In 2015, he was offering American students US$25,000 college scholarships. Qualification was by means of home-made videos for the thesis: “How do you strive to make others happy”. The title may sound anodyne but in his explanation of the ‘scholarship’ scheme he added this caveat: “If you’re against pornography and an anti-pornography crusader, this is probably not the scholarship for you”.

But, amusing as that might be, what’s at issue here is anything but. The bleatings of Internet freedom advocates – that the move is “draconian” and interferes with people’s civil rights – miss the point of what the government is up against. Like the country’s narcotics problem, child sex-abuse in the Philippines has been flourishing for years; and like the narcotics problem, precious little has been done about it.  Moreover, the Internet – no one’s suggesting that the banned sites screened or streamed child-porn – has brought this exploitative practice to even remote parts of the country.

This trade in child-sex is very big and it’s extremely profitable. The American FBI and Interpol reckon that there are 750,000 predators online in 40,000 chat rooms around the world at any given time. And a lot of that traffic involves Filipino children. Online child abuse is the No.1 cyber-related crime in the Philippines. It involves tens of thousands of young girls.

Detective Superintendent Paul Hopkins, who heads the Australian Federal Police team in Manila, has described the scale of the trade as “monstrous”. In 2015, the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children passed on some 15,000 tips to the Philippine Office of Cybercrime. Eighty percent of these involved the online exploitation of children. And although it’s difficult to value the business precisely, conservative estimates put it at well over US$1 billion a year.

What makes the Philippines ripe for this trade is what the UK National Crime Agency’s Southeast Asia liaison officer, Stephanie McCourt, describes as “the perfect storm” – entrenched poverty, increased Internet access and some competence in speaking English. This brings children in poor families directly into the lairs of pedophiles and perverts everywhere from America to Australia; Belgium to Japan. And according to UNICEF representative to the Philippines, Lotta Sylwander: “The situation is getting worse, not better”.

What makes it even more insidious is that often the children are exploited by their own parents or close family relatives. In some places, it’s become a thriving cottage industry with whole neighbourhoods involved.

But the main problem is that it’s difficult to police and it’s extremely difficult to successfully prosecute offenders. Despite the hundreds of cases that have been brought before the courts, there have only ever been two successful convictions. And the reason for this is the nature of the beast which law enforcement – the police and the courts – are faced with.

This isn’t about downloading photos and videos to a hard drive which can be easily traced; this is live encrypted streaming through video chat – via Skype for example, the medium of choice for ‘webcam child-sex tourists’ and their Philippine hosts. There’s no hard evidence; all record disappears once the tourist goes offline. Payments, meanwhile, are sent via anonymous wire transfers – and even if they could be pinned down to the actual sender and it could be shown that the payment was for a webcam session, there’s no way of proving that it involved a child.

Add to all that the Philippines’ strong privacy laws – the 2012 Data Privacy Act, one of the toughest of its kind in the region – plus the 1965 Anti Wire-Tapping Act and the difficulty in obtaining warrants, and this foe becomes all but impossible to defeat.

And so, the War on Perverts needed to be broadened. And if that results in inconveniencing users of recreational online sex, for want of a better phrase – what some Duterte critics have described as “collateral damage” – then, by the side of a four-year-old girl being used sexually for the entertainment of a sexually depraved 60-year-old man, that’s not a big price to pay.

As Presidential Communications Secretary, Martin Andanar, explained, the banned porn sites “are being used by pedophiles and other people who subscribe to child pornography sites”. And that’s the point; this is all part of their warped libidinous world; and, as such, it’s a legitimate target for attack.

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