Sweetie: A Step to Stop Webcam Child Sex Tourism

A 10 year-old Filipino girl named Sweetie tracked down and identified 1,000 pedophiles from 71 different countries in 10 weeks, the first of whom was convicted in October, 2014. Scott Robert Hansen pleaded guilty to sending obscene pictures of a child, possession of images of child abuse, and failure to comply with a sex offenders order in Brisbane District Court, Australia, and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Hansen started the conversation with saying “hi, u really 9yo”. When he received the answer “Yes”, he proceeded to ask questions such as, “wanna chat or cam with older?” and “I like Asian chicks, are you … for action?” Hansen then became more explicit, “I’m naked, ever seen a guy naked?” before turning on his webcam and performing a sex act in front of a girl who he believed was only nine years old. At one point, as reported by an anonymous operator, Hansen also asked to involve Sweetie’s 8 year-old sister.

What’s amazing about this particular case, however, isn’t the nature of the crime or the unbelievably short prison sentence (which Hansen isn’t even expected to serve) for a man already previously convicted of attempted child abduction and possession of child pornography.

What’s amazing is that the child he sent the photos to was not a child at all.

Sweetie may look, talk, and act like a little girl, but she’s actually a digital model of a Filipino child, created by the Dutch branch of the children’s rights organization Terra des Hommes (Terra des Hommes the Netherlands) to combat the fast-rising phenomenon of webcam child sex tourism (WCST).

What is webcam child sex tourism? To start with, it’s an appallingly easy crime. Adults, usually from developed countries, pay to direct and view children performing sex acts in front of a webcam, in real time. Child victims of this crime report that the people they talk to ask them to perform various sexual tasks, such as take off their clothes, masturbate, and even have sex with other children or adults, in front of a webcam. Basically, these predators direct their own real time child pornography.

Every month, tens of thousands of children fall victim to webcam child sex tourism in the Philippines alone. Predators pay between only USD 10 and 100 for each show. Terra des Hommes the Netherlands has published research showing that WCST has permanent psychological damage on child victims.

The victims of this sex crime tend to be impoverished children who comply with the predators’ requests for money. Child prostitutes can use WCST to supplement their income from street prostitution. Often children are coerced into WCST by their struggling families. Sometimes children are held captive with other children in trafficking ‘dens’ and forced to perform sexual acts in front of webcams by their captors.

The age of victims can range from 5 to 17 years. Terra des Hommes has indicated that infants and babies are also regularly involved in WCST.

Webcam child sex tourism is prohibited by international and most national laws as it combines two different crimes of child exploitation: child pornography and child prostitution. WCST is growing increasingly common, and the number of child victims are rising every day as the internet becomes more accessible to poor children in the developing world, particularly in Southeast Asia, where there is already a developed child sex industry. The UN and the FBI approximate that there are at least 750,000 predators connected to the internet at any given time, and Terra des Hommes believes that this is a minimal estimation for the global demand for webcam child sex tourism. The organization fears that as criminals recognize the potential revenue involved in WCST, the trade will grow into an unstoppable multibillion dollar industry, much like has been observed in the child pornography business.

But this crime leaves next to no evidence, and the only way to convict perpetrators is to catch them red-handed.

That’s where Sweetie comes in.

Terra des Hommes the Netherlands went straight to the source of the problem. Their researchers logged into public chat forums, dating sites, and social networks, identifying themselves as 10 year-old Sweetie. The moment Sweetie revealed her age, she was swarmed by pedophiles, who revealed their sexual interest in her in under five seconds. They felt safe. They could use fake names and use untraceable credit cards to pay and they were in the safety of their own countries.

The predators all wanted Sweetie to turn on her webcam, so the researchers did. Sweetie is an incredibly realistic model of a little girl. Her every motion was controlled by Terra des Hommes researchers from the Netherlands, and while she chatted, the research teams tracked down the predators.

Terra des Hommes the Netherlands clarifies that they did not use any illegal methods to hunt down the predators (all men, apparently) that Sweetie spoke to. These men volunteered all their information the moment Sweetie asked. She asked where they lived, and she received a country. She asked if they had Facebook, they said yes. She asked for their real names, they handed them over. She asked them to turn on their webcams after they asked her to turn on hers, and they revealed their faces.

She never instigated anything sexual or even flirtatious. She was very careful not to solicit anything but basic personal information (name, age, address). The men she spoke to asked her to perform sex acts and performed sex acts in front of her without any prompting. Terra des Hommes obtained live video footage as evidence.

The researchers posing as Sweetie took immense care to constantly remind these predators that she was a minor. If the researchers were posing as a 10 year-old girl, Sweetie took care to mention again and again that she is 10 years old. She is a 10 year-old girl. Her age is 10. Hi, she is a Filipino girl, and she’s 10.

The researchers compiled 1,000 predator dossiers in two and a half months, containing names, ages, addresses, chat logs, and video and audio recordings, and handed them over to Interpol. Terra des Hommes the Netherlands has stated that there would be at least 20,000 more dossiers if they had had the resources and manpower to communicate with every single person that Sweetie was contacted by, since each predator is conversed with individually by teams of researchers controlling Sweetie’s messages and motions. This isn’t even a full sample of online child predators, as predators with a preference for young boys and/or younger or older children did not contact Sweetie.

Concerns have been expressed about Sweetie’s existence being public knowledge. Will predators become more difficult to catch now that they know they may be lured in by Sweetie? In a press conference, Terra des Hommes the Netherlands dismissed these concerns on the grounds that there is no way for a predator to know if the child victim on the other end of the webcam is Sweetie, or an actual Filipino child. More importantly, the organization wants the predators to be aware that there is a possibility that the child they are speaking to is Sweetie. A large number of predators will choose to not participate in WCST if they are afraid of being caught.

Terra des Hommes the Netherlands is convinced that no new legislation needs to be created to deal with these predators because, although Sweetie is only a virtual girl, the fact that these predators offered to pay for her to perform sex acts in itself is illegal since it amounts to prostitution. Coupled with their knowledge of her age, their offers instantly categorize them as child sex predators.

As Judge Julie Rylie noted during Hansen’s conviction, “If you believe that’s a nine year-old girl, that’s the law, that’s good enough.”

Investigations into Sweetie’s other predators continue, but no other arrests have been made. Albert Jaap Van Santbrink, director of Terra des Hommes the Netherlands, asks governments to take a more active approach to prosecuting the remaining predators the organization identified. Despite Hansen’s conviction (who, reportedly, was not even remotely close to the worst of the predators Sweetie had been in contact with), Interpol has expressed reservations about Terra des Hommes’ approach, as the criminal investigations were not undertaken by law enforcement, but by NGOs.

Terra des Hommes the Netherlands has not been discouraged, however. The organization continues to raise awareness about WCST and Sweetie, and is currently working on project Sweetie 2.0, developing globally applicable software to combat webcam child sex tourism. This time, they have the assistance of national and international law enforcement agencies.

Their message to online predators is, “We are watching.”

Petition created by Terra des Hommes the Netherlands to pressure governments to act against WCST can be found at http://avaaz.org/en/wcst/

The full report released by Terra des Hommes the Netherlands after the 10 month sting can be found at https://d3hbxfkt92wlh4.cloudfront.net/inc/Research_Report.pdf (Warning for disturbing and explicit samples of chat logs between Sweetie and child predators.)

For more information, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/sweetie

-Medha Monjaury

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