Do you know the girl in the above picture? If you do, you are in a very deep trouble. Her name is Sweetie, she is 10 years old and she lives in the Philippines – or she would if she was real. As a matter of fact, Sweetie is just a digital model created by the Dutch chapter of Terre des hommes, an international organization fighting for children’s rights.
The little girl avatar appeared in online chat rooms for two months, controlled by TDH members. Sweetie did not initiate any chat, but she was made to respond to anyone who contacted her in a realistic way including broken English, preteen interests and so on. If someone asked her to turn on her webcam, the puppeteers could direct her gestures completing the illusion that you were really talking to just another naïve kid from an developing country. She would be friendly, asking about you and your looks, social networks presence and contacts – which would be dutifully recorded by the staff.
Fact is, Sweetie was contacted by an average of 285 times a day by adult remote abusers who expressed sexual interest in her. About 20,000 different persons had an explicit chat session, many wanted to see her naked or perform obscene acts for them, and many offered to compensate the child with online payments. This behavior, known as ‘virtual child sex tourism’, may not be as physically damaging as live abuse but is just as psychologically scarring – and it is clearly a growing phenomenon. «The very diffusion of reliable Internet connections in developing countries means we are going to see more and more of this» said a TDH spokeperson.
At the end of the initiative, Terre des hommes collected about one thousand profiles of virtual pedophiles worldwide and delivered them to Interpol. There is no real hope of any strong response: in past years only six such persons have been convicted, even if online abuse is a crime in most countries. This operation however is managing to raise awareness about the problem, and there is an online petition anyone can sign to call for a better child protection from online predators.
Not considering the questionable efficacy of online petitions in the first place, the initiative didn’t receive unanimous approval. While the protocol of Sweetie’s behavior is described as strictly responsive and thus not as objectionable as the actively entrapping Spanish chatbot I wrote about in July, some commenters noticed that chat transcripts revealed a soliciting pattern. In other words, the abusers are obviously guilty but the data might be not entirely reliable for research. Also, police cannot do much in cases like this where technology is not advanced enough to guarantee a perfectly lifelike avatar: criminals can simply claim they were aware they were interacting with a virtual puppet, so they were just playing along a weird but harmless erotic fantasy. In fact, this opens a whole new field of research around virtualizing sex crimes as therapy or plain outlet for actual and would-be criminals, the legitimacy of it and so on.
Most of all, however, critics point out that targeting abusers does not really help the children much for the sheer number of virtual pedophiles means they will just be victimized by new ones. An information campaign geared toward the kids and explaining them how to deal with abuses would be much more effective, and of course a policy of punishing the families and the educators who allow – and sometimes encourage – the children into on- and offline prostitution would be even better. In the meantime, I would spend a minute signing the petition anyway.