Volt in for safer Philippine internet landscape

Terry Ridon, Non-Resident Fellow of Stratbase ADR Institute and Convenor of InfraWatch PH

In recent years, the Philippines has gained notoriety all over the world for becoming one of the global epicenters of online sex abuse trade, with a report from the United Nations Children’s Fund revealing that the underground market for online sexual abuse of children (OSEC) pays as much as $100 (roughly P5,000) per broadcast, somewhat equivalent to almost 10 days’ worth of wages.

Various monitoring groups have repeatedly sounded the alarm in the past months, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already grim situation. One report cited by Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles during the January 11 cabinet meeting is chill-inducing: OSEC reports rose from 19,000 in 2019 to 47,937 in 2020, when quarantine restrictions were imposed considering the pandemic.

The lockdown situation brought about by the subsequent community quarantines worsened the online child safety landscape. It is a widespread issue since one in three internet users in the Philippines are children.

With the widening availability of internet connection in the country, and with the pandemic virtually halting classes and prompting children to spend more time online, sexual predators are finding it easier to prey on children. There have been several reports of Facebook and Twitter users explicitly sharing and selling child sexual abuse materials, and of children falling victim to live-stream sex abuse.

Economic constraints, coupled with the ease of conducting OSEC crimes, easily worsened the situation into epidemic proportions, albeit hidden and often not discussed in the public sphere.

Following the call of President Rodrigo Duterte to review extant laws, rules and regulations to address OSEC back in January, he followed up on this path recently by directing the National Telecommunications Commission to issue sanctions on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies who fail to adhere to their responsibilities under Republic Act 9775 or the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009.

This directive may be considered a step in the right direction, at the surface level. However, some points need to be cleared so as not to unjustly blame one sector – ISPs and telcos – over a multi-pronged issue.

First, we must recognize that telcos and ISPs have done their part: Globe, for one, invested $2.7 million to improve filtering of content in their systems through their “PlayItRight” advocacy campaign and has successfully blocked 2,521 child porn domains. Converge ICT Solutions, meanwhile, installed a firewall system and Secure Domain Name Solution to block malicious websites.

To blame ISPs and telcos alone frees other entities over the OSEC epidemic – especially the government – unnecessarily frees government entities of their roles in policing the internet. If we follow this argument, then we should also ask: why is it that out of thousands of OSEC-related cases in 2018, only 27 perpetrators were convicted?

Again, a multifaceted problem needs a multi-pronged action. And just as they cry in the iconic Voltes V show, all sectors – both public and private – must volt in to beat OSEC.

As the current administration has put this hidden epidemic in the limelight, it is time to iron out prevailing issues that have long been lying idle. For one, RA 9775 and RA 10173 or the Data Privacy Act of 2012 have several conflicting provisions, with the latter imposing “strict privacy responsibilities upon entities that collect or process personal information of customers.” This puts ISPs and telcos in a legal bind when it comes to monitoring OSEC activities.

RA 9775 also does not consider the emerging role of social media in the commission of OSEC. The burden of safeguarding the internet must include regulating social media networks, but at the same time keeping in mind that data privacy is a right.

This finicky issue should immediately be addressed with the public thoroughly involved. We cannot simply police the internet by sacrificing online data privacy.

There are several other extant laws related to OSEC prevention that should be reviewed, including RA 9208 as expanded by RA 10364 or the “Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act.” The amended law is silent on how ISPs can cooperate with the government in prosecuting offenders.

It can be strengthened to ensure that cooperating with law enforcement when they find reasonable suspicion of OSEC-related trafficking, while not sacrificing the data privacy of its customers. The law should also ensure that technological or other practical safeguards are in place to prevent or detect recruitment and trafficking.

Capacity-building is also key, as ISP employees and government agents should be well-trained in detecting unlawful activity.

Other private actors must also be mobilized – including banks, money remittance centers, credit card companies, hotels, inns and other rental facilities that enable the commission of OSEC. In solving online crimes, the money trail is a key factor.

Keeping the Philippine internet safe from nefarious forces requires adopting a holistic approach that enjoins all sectors of society – from government agencies to the private sector – to be internet guardians.
We must learn from experience: the government should not pin the blame on their private counterparts or gaps in existing rules and regulations. Rather, a comprehensive assessment of the problem at hand is needed. Leaving the monitoring of online activity to a select few must change – the public must be empowered to report OSEC cases too.

To this end, we must add another layer in our analysis: the socioeconomic roots of OSEC. Poverty, joblessness, the economic impact of the pandemic – all these entangle children and their families into the dark web of the online sex trade.

Solutions to these persisting issues go hand in hand with the greater struggle of overcoming the pandemic-induced recession. Online crimes have offline roots. And the private sector cannot police this monstrosity on their own.

Let’s all volt in for a safer Philippine internet landscape.

This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: The STAR/Michael Varcas.

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