Webcam child sex tourism: stopping the growing number of predators

Among many others the Webcam Child Sex Tourism (WCST) is one of the emerging crimes against children and represents a violation of the United Nations Conventions on child rights. WCST is illegal in most countries. Some have laws prohibiting adults from conversing with minors about sex. iStock_000008191883Large

Others prohibit “enticing” a minor to engage in sexual conduct. Other countries outlaw showing obscene images to minors, and most countries prohibit viewing sexual images and sexual performances involving minors. Thus, Governments should adopt policies that give their law enforcement agencies the mandate to proactively search for predators seeking to engage in WCST on public online places known to be hotspots for child abuse.

Key question: how to approach a rather hidden phenomenon with global root causes?
Terre des Hommes Netherland, member of the International Federation Terre des Hommes, has tried to give an answer to this key question also in order to give a concrete and theoretical contribution to the Freedom From Fear initiative.
Rising internet usage rates and persistent poverty in the developing world have fostered the emergence of a rapidly growing new form of online child sexual exploitation. Webcam Child Sex Tourism takes place when adults pay or offer other rewards in order to direct and view live streaming video footage of children in another country performing sexual acts in front of a webcam. WCST enables predators to sexually abuse children in other countries with ease and frequency using their Internet-connected personal computers. And despite the fact that WCST is prohibited by international laws and most national criminal codes, the enforcement of those laws has so far been lax. Terre des Hommes works to end child exploitation and to assist victims around the world.
In recent years, we have been overwhelmed by the surging number of child victims of WCST in the Philippines. The psychological damage that exploitation through WCST has on children is profound and permanent. We recognize that victim assistance alone cannot stop the expansion of such a rapidly growing form of child exploitation. That knowledge motivated us to undertake this study in search of a solution that governments around the world can apply to reduce the global demand for WCST.
Key facts: the United Nations and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation estimate that there are 750,000 predators connected to the Internet at any moment. Those predators contribute to a vast global demand for WCST, suggesting that this form of long-distance child abuse appears to take place with great frequency. However, the alarming fact that only six predators have ever been convicted for engaging in WCST should inspire shame and immediate action by governments around the world. This is a problem that urgently needs to capture the world’s attention.
Insight: the vast global demand for WCST provides incentives for criminals, and causes impoverished parents and vulnerable children in developing countries to capitalize on the opportunity to raise their income by increasing the “supply” of those who perform webcam sex shows for money or other rewards. Taking targeted action to reduce the global demand for WCST that is sustained by online predators will effectively reduce the growing number of child victims who constitute the “supply” side of the trade.
Our research: what started as research into the WCST trade led us to a viable solution to this global problem. We began the research for this report by gathering information about the nature of the phenomenon of WCST: the physical and online environments in which it takes place, the global trends that have fostered its emergence, and the legal status of WCST in international law and in the national criminal and penal codes of 21 countries. We found that the legal framework prohibiting WCST widely exists, but governments are not adequately enforcing their own child protection laws when the victims are located outside of their borders. Our finding that only six predators worldwide have been convicted for engaging as customers in WCST highlights further this point.
That finding led us to wonder how often WCST actually takes place online. Four Terre des Hommes Netherlands researchers spent 10 weeks posing as prepubescent Filipino girls on 19 public chat rooms. During that short period, a total of 20,172 predators from 71 countries committed crimes by soliciting the researchers, whom the predators believed to be minors, for paid webcam sex performances. But 20,172 crimes in a sample of 19 chat rooms likely reflects only a small fraction of the number of crimes actually taking place every day when we consider the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s estimates that there are 40,000 online chat rooms on which predators lurk. Moreover, WCST takes place on social networking sites, adult webcam sites and online dating sites, in addition to chat rooms. It is likely that WCST takes place tens of thousands of times each day.
The finding that WCST is such a common crime on public chat rooms led us to investigate whether law enforcement agencies are not adequately enforcing existing child protection laws because they are unable to identify predators engaging in WCST. Although is difficult to proving the crime because the nature of the webcam evidence is created only trough record of a session, we found that identifying predators seeking webcam sexual performances from children can be achieved through the use of a proactive investigation technique.
During the 10 weeks spent collecting data, the four Terre des Hommes Netherlands researchers identified 1,000 predators seeking webcam sex performance from children on public chat rooms. They were identified using only information available in public online databases and data provided by predators. No computer hacking or illegal methods were applied. Instead, we just asked predators to provide identifying information under the fictional pretext ‒ a technique known as “social hacking”. So we were also able to record some web came sessions.
The full report, available on the website of the TDH International Federation and the Dutch website of TDH is the most comprehensive study on WCST undertaken to date. However, the findings of the TDH NL research, while alarming, only provide a small glimpse into how vast the phenomenon of WCST actually is. While we cannot extrapolate conclusions about the global prevalence of WCST, we do prove that there is a very high incidence of predators seeking WCST on 19 public chat rooms in a 10-week period. Furthermore, based on our analysis of trends in technological developments and other forms of child sexual exploitation, we predict that the WCST trade will continue to grow and spread to other countries if governments around the world do not take immediate action. If action is not taken, we fear that WCST will spiral as far out of control as the online child pornography industry, which is now a multi-billion dollar international trade that law enforcement agencies cannot reign in.
Call to action: in some countries law enforcement agencies are limited by investigation policies ‒ they investigate crimes against child victims of WCST only after children report the crimes. But, for a number of reasons, children do not report these crimes very often. We call on government agencies in those countries to immediately adopt proactive law enforcement policies that empower law enforcement agencies to patrol public online spaces known to be hotspots for WCST and to prosecute predators committing these crimes without waiting for children or parents to report them.
Terre des Hommes Netherlands’ four researchers identified 1,000 predators in 10 weeks. In our petition ( http://avaaz.org/en/wcst/ ) we call on all government agencies in charge of justice to identify and convict 100,000 predators committing the crime of WCST before the end of 2014.

Raffaele K. Salinari
Chairperson of Terre des Hommes International Federation.