One of the more silenced tragedies are the ones revolving around sex trafficking, sex slavery and child pornography. While we read about these things in novels or cry while eating popcorn in the movie theater, we never realize that these tragic things happen much closer to home then we realize, even when they happen on the other side of the world. We almost even forget that our society is one of the biggest causes of these tragedies existing in the first place. Why? Because we are wealthy and people will go a long way for money.
The worst part is that almost every home contains the device needed to be committing or contributing to one of these crimes: a computer. While wealthier people surf on the internet, a child in a poor country is forced to chat or Skype with them, doing what they are told to do and having no one around to protect them. At any given point in time, there are about 750.000 men looking to have webcam sex with children online. To hear this might be a tough pill to swallow. However, denial is what is keeping these tragedies alive.
It is very easy to say that these people committing the crimes need to be arrested and punished. However, the complex anonymity problem of the internet is growing to be a much bigger problem than it was ever meant to be. Using fake usernames, forwarding e-mail addresses and such makes it almost impossible to locate a person in real life. Virtual lives can be untraceable, especially without the funding needed to end such a problem. Since the actual ‘sex slavery’ is not happening in the wealthy countries, the funds are not met. Hence, the loop continues and the crimes are not stopped.
Fortunately, Terre des Hommes recognized this problem and was determined to fight it. Without the funding and the resources to trace all the different paths originating from 40.000 public chatrooms that already exist, they decided to create a whole new path to lure the pedophiles online, find out who they are and make sure that they are revealed. They would fight this battle using technology and technology only.
They created ‘Sweetie’: a 10- year old girl who lives in the Philippines. Just like about 10.000 other children in the Philippines, she is online in chatrooms talking to men about performing sexual acts. However, Sweetie is different than the other children: she literally has been created. Different specialists have created a virtual girl who looks so realistic that she is mistaken for an actual girl available in the chatrooms.
While men are chatting with her, Terre des Hommes is controlling the girl from behind different computers. While they are chatting, they are controlling her facial expressions, her movement and her background using different options they have built in. Her persona, her movements and her appearance have been designed with such care and details that she fits into these chatrooms as any other child.
During the conversations with the pedophiles, the people behind the scenes would subtly ask for some information: their names, where they live, what they do for a living. At this stage, the internet actually becomes a somewhat handy tool: this basic information is thrown into Facebook and other social networks like it. In 2013 alone, they have uncovered the identities of 1000 men looking for child webcam sex in 71 different countries.
Terre des Hommes wrote a report including the names of all the different men they knew to uncover. On the 24th of October, an Australian man was convicted after he had confessed to sending compromising pictures to ‘Sweetie’ and possessing child pornography. Unfortunately, most countries, including The Netherlands, decided that someone could not be charged with sexual contact with a virtual girl and decided not to follow up on the report.
How can we not pursue men who have deliberately sought sexual contact with a child, even if this child is not real? All Terre des Hommes gets to do is point the finger to these men, tell them ‘haha, you fell for a virtual girl’ and let them move on to the next one? While this organization is trying to protect children and stop these people before they have the chance to commit this crime and potentially ruin a life, countries are waiting for the actual crime to happen before they take action. The well known idiom ‘to prevent is better than to cure’ apparently has no legal status and, therefore, people look the other way and keep on ignoring this growing problem at hand.
This decision not to pursue these men shows how the internet, and especially the anonymity of people on the internet, can be a huge problem we might not be ready for. When is a virtual crime a crime? And when is it just a joke? By not pursuing these crimes, are we not ignoring other related internet problem, such as cyber-bullying?
However, Terre des Hommes is showing that it is truly easy to uncover someone’s identity. Having pedophiles know that there are lures on the internet is what Terre des Hommes hopes will stop the upcoming industry. They have even decided to follow-up on the ‘Sweetie Project’ and are now working on ‘Sweetie 2.0’ to, hopefully, destroy the child webcam sex industry once and for all.
Hans Guijt, the director of the ‘Sweetie Project’ at Terre des Hommes, will be one of the Keynote Speakers of the Symposium ‘Innovating Daily Life’ organized by Proto, the study association of Creative Technology at the University of Twente on the 29th of April 2015.