LAST OF FOUR PARTS
Warning: This article contains depictions of child sexual abuse
University of the Philippines student Keichi Yamane, 22, is a young man on a mission. He has spent much of his free time scouring the Internet for child sexual exploitation materials, documenting and compiling them into detailed reports that he submits to the justice department’s Office of Cybercrime (OOC).
Yamane’s organization, END Rape Culture PH, has helped dozens of women and underage girls remove their naked selfies and sex videos from social media platforms, online groups, and amateur adult websites.
Fighting online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) is not an easy crusade. “It’s traumatizing. It makes you want to puke. You really won’t be able to get any sleep looking at this stuff,” Yamane told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). He doesn’t just see images of sex abuse. He also sees the conversations while the abusers exploited their victims.
But Yamane persists, despite its toll on his mental health, because he is determined to get justice for the victims. “I have someone very close to me, a loved one who was a victim of a sex crime,” he said. “That’s what drives me to do this. It’s just so unacceptable that nothing’s being done or there’s too few people addressing this problem.”
He’s been at it since he was in high school. He had since picked up a few tricks in his quest to exact justice for the victims. He also gets tips from people familiar with his advocacy.
He has submitted to the justice department at least three comprehensive reports on networks exchanging illegal imagery across social media, mostly from Reddit and Discord, which are among the least-monitored platforms. He also works with the National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police.
Tech solutions needed
In 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Yamane reported to authorities a Facebook group where foreigners and expats in the Philippines looked for Filipino men and women to date. He found more than a dozen posts soliciting abuse imagery, some containing snippets of child abuse.
He lamented how Facebook had yet to take the group down. But the Department of Justice said it had referred Yamane’s report to the Philippine National Police. The group remains active and has some 300,000 members as of posting time.
It underscored the challenges confronting law enforcement agencies all over the world in pinning down networks and individuals proliferating child sex abuse materials.
In the Philippines, in particular, where up to 1.29 million photos and videos of this type of content were reported in 2020 alone, there’s not enough police officers and government agents trained to conduct monitoring.
Law enforcement agencies in the Philippines have demanded more action from Internet Service Providers (ISPs), alleging negligence of their obligations under a decade-old law that directs them to block transmission of illegal imagery in their servers. (READ: Kids in secret rooms: Why purveyors of child online sex abuse are difficult to catch)
According to the OOC, ISPs in the Philippines have been looking into using several technologies – such PhotoDNA and Image Hashing technology of Microsoft, and Project Arachnid of the Canadian Center for Child Protection – to comply with their obligations. These software scan newly uploaded images against previously detected materials.
As ISPs in the Philippines struggle to meet government expectations, law enforcement agencies have often relied on the work of social media platforms and other electronic service providers (ESPs) in fighting OSEC.
Facebook bans accounts distributing these banned images and has recently developed a pop-up warning for search results that involve child abuse materials, but a lot of the materials slip past these mechanisms. They require commonly used keywords, which often evolve.
“We have those recidivism policies in place that we’re constantly working to improve as well in this space. It’s there and we’re constantly working on it as well,” Facebook Asia-Pacific safety head Amber Hawkes told the PCIJ.
Other electronic service providers (ESPs) such as Twitter and Google have stepped up monitoring on their platforms, but some tech companies still fell short, according to authorities.
Law enforcement agencies and NGOs were also looking forward to the launch of SafeToNet, a promising artificial intelligence software developed by a British cyber-safety company to block disturbing images like child sexual exploitation and torture, while they are being live-streamed.
A demo video shown to the PCIJ demonstrated how SafeToNet instantly blocked portions of a video where a disturbing scenario was being shown while the rest of the live stream or video’s frame was being transmitted to a platform.
“It angers me significantly that SafeToNet is a tiny company in comparison to the tech giants. (So) how is it that we can build this and they apparently can’t? Well, of course they can, they have to be able to if we can,” said SafeToNet chief executive officer Richard Pursey.
Better laws, better implementation
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done offline, too.
Government prosecutors have obtained a little over 100 convictions against OSEC perpetrators in the country, according to data from the International Justice Mission (IJM). Groups such as The SaferKidsPH consortium, ChildFundPH, and Child Rights Network believe that more convictions and arrests could be made if the country’s laws are updated and the current laws are implemented more effectively.
The groups lamented how there was no “all-encompassing” law that clearly includes the full range of OSEC activities like grooming, recruitment, online technology, stages of commission, participation in the offense, and their corresponding penalties.
The Cybercrime Prevention Act, Anti-Child Pornography Act and the Anti-Child Abuse Act are the most referenced laws for OSEC cases. These laws failed to define OSEC as a distinct and separate crime and impose specific punishments against it, the groups have said.
There should also be more accountability on the part of private entities whose services are being used by pedophiles – banks, internet cafes, money remittance centers, credit card companies, hotels, inns and lessors.
“We really need to update our laws to end online sexual abuse and exploitation of children. We need to clearly define what it means in our laws and we need to push for clear and strict obligations for various internet actors and improve our local law enforcement (capabilities),” said Allan Nuñez, advocacy specialist of ChildFund Philippines.
The Senate approved in May 2021 Senate Bill 2209, which aims to strengthen the child protection system and to amend the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 and the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2009. The counterpart bill in the House of Representatives is still pending in the committee.
Proposed amendments include additional obligations for ISPs and ESPs and clear obligations for banks, money service businesses, credit card companies, electronic money issuers and other financial institutions supervised by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
While advocacy groups and government agencies welcomed the bill’s approval, prosecuting and investigating OSEC cases would still require evidence provided by ISPs.
“We are dealing with electronic evidence and computer data that are handled by ISPs. They give access and services. So if we can’t secure these information from them, we can’t get evidence. You can’t be just all talk before a judge,” said state counsel Angela de Gracia of the Department of Justice.
“Even if you create another law and the ISPs keep telling us they can’t give us information because of technological limitations––all investigations, prosecutions of OSEC cases will still remain futile,” she added.
Lawyer Sheila Guico of IJM’s Cebu Field Office, who had handled more than a dozen OSEC cases in the province, also lamented how lawyers defending accused OSEC perpetrators treated children “as if they were adults.”
“Criminal proceedings are adversarial and I’ve seen that. When the defense does cross examination, I’m telling you… yikes! You’d think they’re cross examining an adult. There were some, especially older (lawyers), who tended to be dramatic. They’d louden their voices, intimidating the kid,” Guico said.
Prosecutors and judges are given Prosecuting Online Sexual Exploitation or POSE trainings, which include specialized instruction on topics such as admissibility of digital evidence in court and the application of child protective measures in OSEC trials.
However, Guico said a number of courts still rely on victim testimony, failing to consider the possibility of re-traumatizing the victims who are mostly younger than 12 and whose traffickers were their own mothers or relatives. This trounces efforts of organizations like IJM to prevent re-traumatizing kids while exacting justice on their traffickers, which include plea-bargaining and in-depth video interviews as a substitute to physical testimonies––both of which had brought dozens of convictions.
“Kids would wet their beds at night because of the stress. Just the thought of going to court, seeing your relative and weighing whether to tell the truth or protect your relative. That’s very heavy for them,” she said.
“Hopefully, we will arrive at a time when courts would say: ‘Oh! You have digital, financial evidence. That is sufficient already,’” she added.
Efforts to help children
In Olongapo City, Preda Foundation offers treatment and other opportunities for sexual abuse and trafficking survivors to deal with their trauma. One particular aspect of Preda’s therapeutic approach is emotional release therapy, an alternative treatment for physical and emotional distress.
VIDEO COURTESY OF PREDA. WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTINS STORIES ABOUT CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE.
In Preda, kids are taught how to percolate to let their trauma out through emotional expressions such as screaming in pain, wailing, and pounding on training mats and cushions to simulate their retaliation against their abusers.
“In other words, the ‘fighting back,’ that was impossible at the time of the abuse or trauma is now possible,” Preda founder Fr. Shay Cullen said.
Survivors also grapple with acknowledging that they were victims. In the nonprofit Voice of the Free, social workers had to deal with many kids who reject therapy and insist that they had to engage in online trafficking to feed their families and that their families would starve if they continued staying in a shelter.
Some kids would spend weeks holding grudges against social workers in the shelter, causing trouble and making attempts to escape as they feel “imprisoned.”
“That’s why part of our intervention here is livelihood, so they won’t feel that they’ve left their families helpless [by choosing a path of recovery],” VF social worker Karen Navera told PCIJ, stressing that it was important for survivors to learn that they have other options to support their families without engaging in OSEC.
“They acknowledge eventually that they were wronged and realize that it’s important that they’re studying, that they have skills, and that [they have] dignity,” she added.
Child protection expert Maria Margarita Ardivilla said it was also time for communities to realize that one family alone cannot solve the crime. Community-building is instrumental for impoverished areas where OSEC has been normalized as a profession for kids, especially when social safety nets and sustainable alternatives for the poor are limited, she said.
“We need to talk to associations of tricycle drivers, [the] local business establishments, organizations of parents, you need to be able to mobilize for peer support of young people […] you need to be able to mobilize community is the short answer of what can the community do to understand this kind of phenomenon,” she said.
“If you see a family already having these red flags, there has to be a way to make interventions because the message is we cannot condone this kind of violence, and we cannot perpetuate a culture of silence,” she added.
The internet has no borders, but it baffles Yamane how disconnected Filipino internet users are from online sex abuse running rampant in the country. If internet users in the West can take action against the proliferation of the illegal imagery and report them to authorities, then Filipinos can, too, he said.
“If the whole internet community would act like watchdogs, we can really stop the abuse,” he said.
Yamane has taken a long break from his independent work but hopes he could return to help victims of abuse and OSEC.
The fact that the expat group and other communities abusing children remain on social media sometimes nags away and keeps him awake at night.
“This is my white whale. It really gets back to me why I left it like that. This is my unfinished business,” he said. END
*Neil Jayson Servallos, an M.A. Journalism student at the UST Graduate School, originally wrote this story for one of his reporting classes. It was expanded into a series with the editorial guidance of the PCIJ.
*Illustration by Alexandra Paredes
*This story is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute’s Asian Stories project, in collaboration with ABS-CBN News, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times and Tempo in Indonesia.