Children are being sexually exploited, trafficked and sold online on an unprecedented scale as technological advances enable abusers to target victims with impunity, a coalition of governments, charities and tech companies said on Wednesday.
The global spread of cheap, high-speed internet and the rise in mobile phone ownership is fuelling the growth of cybersex trafficking, which has become a “brutal form of modern-day slavery”, according to a report by Britain-led WeProtect.
From Britain and the United States to India and the Philippines, children are being abused over livestreams and sold for sex – often via social media and classified advertising websites – for ever-cheaper prices, anti-trafficking groups say.
“It has never been easier to abuse children online,” Baroness Joanna Shields, founder of WeProtect – an alliance to end child exploitation online – told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the End Violence Solutions Summit in Stockholm.
“Technology … is providing offenders with unprecedented access to victims, new capabilities and increasing confidence to abuse children on a mass scale,” added Shields, previously an executive at Facebook and Britain’s internet safety minister.
While there is no data on the scale of the crime globally, the United Nations children’s agency Unicef estimates 1.8 million children are trafficked into the sex trade every year.
In the Philippines alone – considered by campaigners to be the epicentre of the live-stream sex abuse trade – police receive thousands of cybersex trafficking referrals each month, according to the International Justice Mission (IJM), a charity.
Online child abuse and trafficking is difficult to tackle because the crimes transcend borders, with limited coordination between countries, while abusers use the latest technologies to stay a step ahead of law enforcement, the WeProtect report said.
“Impunity has enabled diversification of their methods of operation, resulting in new and persistent threats,” it said.
The report called for greater cooperation between governments, civil society groups, technology companies and law enforcement agencies to deal with the rapidly evolving crime.
“Protecting children from this contemporary form of global child abuse requires … regulatory bodies partnering with technology firms,” said Bharti Patel, head of charity Ecpat UK.
Internet companies which fail to monitor and take down child sex abuse material and other illegal content should be prosecuted, a British government watchdog said in December.