The damning scale of harm

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

October is the month of Halloween, of made-up nightmares that we tell ourselves as entertainment and release, to remind us that monsters are not really under our bed and that specters do not haunt the halls. But there are undeniable horrors and evils in this world, and the fact that they are rooted in human activity makes them all the more terrible. For these types of harms, it’s important that we remind ourselves not of their fantasy, but of their reality – and what we can and must do to stem the tide.

One of these real evils that I have spoken against frequently in this column is that of human trafficking, specifically the exploitation of children. During the height of the pandemic, children were increasingly targeted by traffickers who used social media and other online platforms to recruit new victims, profiting from the increased demand for child sexual exploitation materials. Technology will always be leveraged by criminal elements, but the speed of technological innovation in the modern era is unprecedented, and for government, humanitarian and law enforcement agencies to be able to adequately prevent and respond to online exploitation, their tools must also evolve rapidly. Crimes that make use of remote means, such as the online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC), can be incredibly difficult to discover, investigate and properly prosecute.

This has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of live streaming technology, particularly since live streams usually do not result in the creation of a single stored image or file, and any evidence of what occurred will be fragmented across different platforms and devices. The tools we use to investigate, capture and even measure instances of online exploitation must evolve… and while change can be slow, with effort and cooperation such change does arrive.

One of these new tools is the application of the Network Scale-Up Method. This is a product of the Scale of Harm, a project by the International Justice Mission (IJM) together with the University of Nottingham Rights Lab to develop a methodology estimating the prevalence of trafficking of children to produce child sexual exploitation materials. The first step to combatting a complex problem is analyzing it and measuring its scale, and for new forms of crime new metrics and methodologies can be helpful at providing a clearer picture and more nuanced vocabulary for tackling the topic. The Scale of Harm project aims to assist in this initial step of addressing the problems brought about by the complexity of identifying livestreamed child sexual exploitation incidents.

The Network Scale-Up Method, which is widely used in other fields, enables, according to the IJM, “researchers to understand behaviors by asking an individual about their social network size and the number of people in that circle who they know are involved in a phenomenon. The researcher can then divide the average number of involved people or victims known by the individual and their average social network size to produce a percentage estimate, giving the prevalence of that phenomenon across a region or country by scaling up.”

This method was deemed an improvement of previous options because it avoids asking about the personal experiences of respondents and does not ask respondents for identifying information about the specific people and locations in question, which makes it less risky for them to answer. The safety of respondents, primarily those who are former victims of trafficking or exploitation, is of paramount importance.

Using the Network Scale-Up Method, the first Scale of Harm study released in 2022 provided a better understanding of the extent of the selling of livestreamed and new images and videos of child sexual abuse in the Philippines. The findings of the study, publicly unveiled just last month, are damning.

Nearly half a million Filipino children were trafficked to produce new child sexual exploitation material in 2022 and nearly a quarter of a million adult Filipinos trafficked children to produce new child sexual exploitation material in 2022. Without intervention, the abuse lasted for years. The survivors surveyed believed that current community efforts and capacity at the local law enforcement and barangay levels are inadequate in preventing and reducing trafficking of children.

The report accompanied these findings with a set of recommendations, based on the results and the experience of experts in the fight against trafficking. A key recommendation is to cultivate community-based reporting. Because OSEC is a hidden crime, it is especially important to have community help, not just in reporting, but in rooting out the beliefs that make OSEC possible – that such exploitation is a family or private matter, that it is an acceptable way to earn income and that outsiders should not interfere. The recommendation to implement robust community-based efforts has already been started by the government through the passage of local ordinances and through local inter-agency task forces to combat trafficking that both involve the community.

It was further recommended that advocacy should also be led and informed by survivors of exploitation, as much as possible. But laws and policies to prevent and combat trafficking should look at the perspective of the survivors as well.

The recommendation to enhance the criminal justice response entails improving training through victim-centric ways of handling OSEC cases, and training in new tools and protocols. At the moment the Anti-OSAEC Law technology provisions have not been fully enforced. Technology companies should “install mechanisms or measures designed to prevent, detect, respond or report” child sexual abuse and exploitation material and keep in the loop as to what is and is not technologically possible at any given time. Banks and money service institutions must also implement ways to monitor and detect suspicious payments that may lead us to the criminals who provide a demand for OSEC material.

Countries where such criminals are usually from, such as the US, UK and EU, must pass substantial online safety legislation increasing protections for children and transparency by tech companies in developing technology safe by design.

At one of the recent hearings on the 2024 budget, we’re reminded that as recently as 2019, the Philippines was the worst in digital literacy. We cannot afford to lag behind in educating and arming our people against the dangers posed by online crimes, especially if we are to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The extent of the harm posed by OSEC to our children has never been clearer – now is the time to act.

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