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Opinion

Protecting our children from digital predators

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Juha Pyykkö, Annika Thunborg, Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin, Christian Halaas Lyster - The Philippine Star

Filipino children are terribly amongst the most vulnerable to online sexual abuse and trafficking, prompting President Marcos Jr. on April 24 to call for intensifying the fight against this abominable, borderless and hidden crime. Through the Nordic Liaison Office (NLO) in Manila, the five Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are working closely together with the Philippine government to protect children from this international threat and bring perpetrators in both the Philippines and abroad to justice.

Problem

The Philippines is a perfect storm for online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSAEC). Consider the following: 96 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds are online, the country has a young population, English language proficiency is high, poverty rate is around 20 percent and digital technologies around social interactions and financial transactions have advanced. In today’s interconnected world, transnational crimes such as OSAEC pose grave dangers to the safety and well-being of our children.

Alarmingly, the Philippines ranked second highest on child sexual abuse cyber tip reports, with almost 2.8 million reports based on the US-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) data. Another study from the non-governmental organization International Justice Mission estimates that one out of 100 Filipino children were trafficked to produce new materials in 2022. This research revealed that online sex abuse is also a family-based crime. The average age of victims is 11 years old, and the youngest victim is a three-month-old baby. The challenge is case detection, as most children who are victims of online sexual abuse are silent due to the shame and stigma of being sexually and psychologically abused by family and close relatives. The numbers are high, yet many cases remain undetected and underreported.

Solutions

Recognizing this hideous problem is an important step. The Nordic embassies commend the Philippine government on enacting the implementation rules of Republic Act No. 11930, “Anti-Online Sexual Abuse or Exploitation of Children (OSAEC) and Anti-Child Sexual Abuse or Exploitation Materials (CSAEM) Act.” This law strengthens the Philippine response to the rising number of cases and increase the information sharing with foreign law enforcement agencies.

NLO Manila and its Philippine counterparts are focused on four key areas of cooperation: prevention and advocacy, prosecution and law enforcement, protection and reintegration of children, and partnership and networking. Since the establishment of NLO Manila office in March 2020, the cooperation has assisted in 185 sexual offenses cases between the Nordic countries and the Philippines.

International cooperation leads to innovations in this field. The need to invest in specialists and experienced officers working within this field has never been more important since the technological development is so great, and the perpetrators take advantage of it.

There are good practices that NLO Manila can share with its Philippine counterparts. As an example, the National Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) in Norway developed in 2023 a new method to effectively impede sharing of sexual abuse material on both the dark web and the open network. This method involves infiltrating sexual abuse forums, downloading and verifying abuse material. The webhosting provider is then notified and requested to remove child abuse materials with reference to concrete webhosting guidelines. This method led to the removal of about 20,000 links with abuse materials and to securing approximately 90,000 videos and one million photos.

Call to action

We are invested long-term on this issue, focusing on both the supply side from countries such as the Philippines and the demand side from Western countries, including the Nordic region. We understand that this is an entire ecosystem of offenders and enablers. Therefore, we must tackle the issue and improve the international ecosystem of cooperation from both a law enforcement perspective and from a development perspective. Poverty and underdevelopment are sex abuse drivers in our communities and must also be addressed.

The Nordic embassies, through NLO Manila, are supportive of the Philippines in protecting the young and innocent. We stand united with the Philippine government in streamlining law enforcement agencies, strengthening collaboration with the private sector and non-government organizations. There is a good opportunity for more cooperation with regional and global law enforcement and development counterparts. We owe it to our children: we must unite in protecting the innocent against online sex predators!

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Franz-Michael Mellbin is the Ambassador of Denmark. Juha Pyykkö is the Ambassador of Finland. Christian Halaas Lyster is the Ambassador of Norway. Annika Thunborg is the Ambassador of Sweden.

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