[OPINION | Dash of SAS] Online sexual exploitation of children is a family business

The woman sitting in the cramped cell was unrepentant.  

“First time ko 'yun. Minalas lang ako na nahuli ako ng pulis (It was just my first time. I was just unlucky that I got caught by the police)," she said, looking at me squarely, her arms crossed over her chest.

Her husband, who was also detained in the cell next to hers, was more subdued but equally unrepentant. “Sinubukan lang namin (We were only trying it out)."

The couple was detained at the Philippine National Police (PNP) Headquarters in Camp Crame for live streaming and selling video images of their children to foreign nationals through their cellphone.

The ease of selling sexual images and videos of children online through a laptop or mobile phone and the convenience of accepting payments through cash remittance services are among the reasons why the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) is a booming family business. 

Last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Cybercrime received more than 600,000 tips of images and videos of naked, sexualized, and abused Filipino children. This marked a 1,300% increase from the almost 46,000 tips received in the previous year. 

However, out of the thousands of reports in 2018, only 27 OSEC perpetrators were convicted, according to the 2019 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report.

Runs in the family

Police Master Sergeant Karen Baccay, the investigator on the case, said that the police had been monitoring the couple for months. 

When they were caught through an undercover operation where police posed as buyers, the couple's phone’s log history showed that they had been engaging foreign nationals and selling them video images of their children performing sexual acts for months. 

“Base din sa accounts ng mga anak nila, hindi nila first time 'yun (Based on the accounts of their children, it was not the first time for the couple to do this}."

According to Baccay, the couple used their two children ages 12 and 11, a 17-year-old girl who is the live-in partner of one of their older children, and a 15-year-old girl who is the girlfriend of another child in their home-based OSEC business. An 11-month old grandchild who lived with the couple is suspected of being abused too. The children, who were all minors at the time  of the couple's arrest, are currently in the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). 

The couple lived in an area of Manila where OSEC is endemic and is a booming home-based family run business. Neighbors and other residents have become desensitized and even some of the children involved have been groomed by their parents or guardians to view it as a way of making easy money, said Baccay.

Some of the buyers come to the Philippines to continue their online sexual exploits with the children they first encounter online. 

“Some of the parents ask the perpetrators to bring them gifts when they come to the Philippines. We have seen messages where they ask for chocolates, for make-up, and cash to buy clothes for an upcoming birthday,” Baccay said in a mix of Filipino and English.

Philippines: Global OSEC hub 

The government is grappling to curb OSEC in the Philippines, which is deemed as a top global source of sexually explicit content that makes use of children. 

A recent report of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated that 2 in 10 children are vulnerable to online sexual exploitation. Boys are found to be as vulnerable as girls. 

Culminating national children’s month this November, 6 international NGOs collectively called Joining Forces Philippines came together to make a united call for the government to implement laws and programs that would curb OSEC. 

Joining Forces Philippines – comprised of ChildFund Alliance, Plan International, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages, Terre des Hommes, and World Vision – released on Friday, November 29, a report that outlines the most urgent and critical child rights issues in the Philippines.   

A 2014 UNICEF report cited OSEC as the leading form of cybercrime in the country. While it starts in the digital space, it can lead to physical prostitution such as child sex tourism.

The government has been making some headway in certain fronts.

In February this year, the Philippine Internet Crimes Against Children Centre was created as a hub to facilitate the coordination between international law enforcement agencies and local police to mount investigations against foreigners overseas who buy sexual content featuring children and the people that sell them. 

The DOJ and the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is also crafting a Child Online Safeguarding Policy which will provide guidelines for the protection of children from all harms of the internet which includes OSEC. 

“Current child pornography laws already require ISPs (internet service providers) to adopt the latest technology that will filter and block pornographic materials that feature children,” said DOJ Undersecretary Markk Perete. “However, many ISPs have been lukewarm about this because of the costs involved.” 

The DOJ is currently in talks with the ISPs and helping them find ways to comply with the law.

Cutting money ties

Joining Forces Philippines said that getting financial institutions like cash remittance centers to cooperate is one of the most urgent and critical ways to end OSEC. 

It is also one of the most difficult to implement.

Most of the perpetrators send their payments through cash remittance services which is difficult to trace because it is often not tied to an account holder with a verified identity. Many remittance centers are reluctant to work with law enforcement claiming they would violate existing Bank Secrecy Laws and the Data Privacy Act. 

DOJ Assistant Secretary George Ortha said at the forum today that cash remittance giant Western Union has been very cooperative in working with the government in strengthening ways to block suspicious money transfers that may be linked to OSEC activities. 

“Do we need legislation to compel these remittance centers to cooperate with the government to track OSEC leads? Currently, there is none so their cooperation becomes voluntary,” said Michelle Paunlagui, Educo Policy and Partnership Manager. Educo is one of the child's rights organizations allied with Joining Forces Philippines. 

“Unlike Western Union, cash remittance centers, especially the smaller ones operating in the provinces are reluctant to flag suspicious cash transactions. They don’t see it as their responsibility because they are just servicing their clients,” said Paunlagui. – Rappler.com

Ana P. Santos writes about sexual health rights, sexuality and gender for Rappler. She is the 2014 Miel Fellow under the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a 2018 Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity in Southeast Asia.Follow her on Twitter at @iamAnaSantos and on Facebook at @SexandSensibilities.com