The internet has revolutionised the manner in which people across the world access information and network with others with the greatest ease as never seen before. From accessing information on any topic to downloading/uploading videos to video conferencing - all is available within a click’s reach. The younger generation are adept users of the internet. And they have benefited from surfing the web whether it be to gather information to complete school projects or to interact with peers through social media. Just as much the internet has offered many opportunities, its misuse carries inherent dangers: The internet facilitates the abuse of children. With internet access readily available and affordable through home computers , mobile phones and cyber cafes both children and their parents/guardians should be aware of the potential pitfalls to prevent youngsters from unwittingly falling victim to abuse and the remedial measures available for seeking justice when it is needed.
How on-line abuse takes place Sexual exploitation
On- line sexual exploitation of children is a heinous crime that cuts across national borders and children unwittingly become victims at the hands of sexual predators. Teenagers are far more curious and impetuous than caution demands and this inclination often makes them fall into trouble. They gain access to social networking websites, chat rooms, and at times even pornographic websites. Fake identities are easy to create and often a person who may appear as an outgoing, friendly person with whom the child is interacting may actually be a sexual predator. Sexual exploitation never takes place on a single occasion. The fake identifier first wins over the trust and love of the youngster over a period of time even though the youngster may not actually have physically met the other party. Youngsters are first cajoled into sending indiscreet photos/ videos of themselves via web cam in the privacy of their homes.
Once the first indiscretion is committed, the victim is at the mercy of the blackmailer who keeps demanding for more with the threat of exposure. These images could be uploaded in child pornographic websites. At other times exploitation of a different nature takes place where teens resort to ‘sexting’(sending sexual content by photo, video, or text message). Although material is shared within a close relationship making it appear seemingly safe, once sent it could go viral –posted by the jilted party once the relationship has ended or even by a third party who uploads relevant content on the web if he gets access to the relevant storage device. Or it could even be that an encounter with a boyfriend is secretly taped by the boyfriend himself to be used as pornographic material . At times, the victim is also blackmailed and money extorted under the threat of images being sent to family members or uploaded on the internet.
Cyber bullying is considered to be the most common on-line abuse teenagers will experience. Social media paves the way especially for teenagers to harass their peers on-line- from hateful, intimidating and hurtful messages posted via social networks to worse forms of bulling such as stealing passwords and impersonating the victim by posting embarrassing content in different web sites. The aggressor could always remain anonymous or create a fake identity and harass the victim. Cyber bullying amounts to emotional abuse of children.
Anyone who uses the internet is susceptible to attacks by hackers. Children, due to their extreme youth, are more vulnerable to attacks. Computer hackers are unauthorized users who break into computer systems with the intent of stealing, changing or destroying data. Malware is generally insidiously installed when users open spam email/attachments. Children who download computer games could also be unintentionally downloading computer viruses. They are more susceptible to “phishing ” attacks. (Phishing is a computer slang for the fraudulent practice of sending emails purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information on-line). Hackers can also monitor chat rooms that youngsters visit and establish contact with them by creating a fake identity.
Internet safety tips
Parents should ensure their child stays safe on-line. They should be internet savvy, if not, they should educate themselves. It is important to have age appropriate discussions on the child’s internet roaming activities. Young children are the easiest to start with since they need the assistance of an adult when they are new to accessing the internet . Parents should be able to supervise all sites visited and block unsuitable sites . And computers should be placed in an area where supervision is possible. Teenagers are very ‘tech savvy’ and it is important for parents/guardians to keep themselves up to date with current developments if they are to be in a position to advice. Parents need to familiarize themselves with all internet connected devices such as iPads and smart phones that are in the possession of their teens and be familiar with mobile apps (software applications developed specifically for use on small, wireless computing devices such as smart phones and tablets). It should be borne in mind that teenagers can always visit cyber cafes and escape parental supervision making it vital for parents to educate children on viruses, phishing, online privacy, and social networking etiquette. Guidelines provided by internet experts state:
Only message and accept “friend requests” from known people. Even from purportedly known persons requests should be first verified.
Check privacy settings: Keep personal information protected by securing on-line accounts, limiting information posted in public forums (never post mobile phone numbers or home address on-line for all to see) and opt out of unused or unwanted on-line services.
Use different passwords for various accounts and never share passwords even with best friends.
Be sensitive to one’s on-line reputation: Never ever send compromising photographs or videos or post anything will embarrass self if an adult or a person in authority were to see.
Never agree to private chat with strangers.
Never meet any on-line friends privately.
Immediately report if any threatening, harassing, or sexual messages are received on-line.
(ECPAT International has published a manual Stay Safe from On-line Sexual Exploitation: A Guide for Children and Young Persons, October 2014. Available for download at www.ecpat.net/.../ecpat-releases-child-friendly-guide-staying-safe-online...)
Never harass any one on-line and if harassed never respond in kind as cyber bullying could go on in a vicious cycle making the victim the harasser. ( For a general overview visit http://www.stopbullying.gov › Cyber Bullying).
Install a good computer virus guard. Take precautionary measures such as not opening unknown email attachments or clicking on unknown links.
Legislative and institutional framework to address child abuse and related offences: An overview
The Sri Lankan Computer Crimes Act No. 24 of 2007 is generic in nature and primarily addresses computer-related crimes and hacking offences. Child abuse and related crimes have been addressed through several amendments to the Penal Code.
Few new offences were created by the Penal Code Amendment Act No. 16 of 2006, which took into consideration new technology being used for the commission of crimes. According to Section 286B(1) (Penal Code (Amendment) Act No.16 of 2006, Section 3) responsibility is cast on persons providing computer services to take necessary steps to ensure that computer facilities are not utilized for the commission of an offence relating child sexual abuse. Further, in terms of section 286B (2) a person who has knowledge that the computer facility is used for the commission of an offence relating to child sexual abuse is required to report to the police and provide relevant information.
Section 360 E ( Sec.9 of Penal Code (Amendment) Act No. 16 of 2006) makes it an offence to solicit a child for sexual abuse by ‘whatever means”
whether from within Sri Lanka or outside Sri Lanka. It is also an offence,in terms of section 286A (Penal Code Amendment Act No. 22 of 1995, section 2), to involve children in any form of indecent exhibition or to make them pose or appear in any indecent photograph or film. Further, in terms of section 286 A (2), a duty is cast on developers of photographs/films to report to the Police if he discovers that he has been given child pornographic material to be developed (Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 29 of 1998, section 2). A child is considered as a person under the age of eighteen years for all the above offences .
Extortion is a serious criminal offence. Victims who have been either filmed or photographed suffer both abuse and humiliation of having money or other valuables extorted from them under the threat of relevant images being uploaded on the internet. Under section 372 of the Penal Code, whoever intentionally puts a person in fear of any injury and thereby dishonestly induces the person to part with valuable security commits the offence of extortion.
There is no specific legislation to tackle cyber harassment and bullying. Recently, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) appointed a task force to combat the growing threat to children and young persons posed by bullying and sexual harassment via social media sites. The task force is mandated, inter alia, to make recommendations to introduce new legislation to specifically deal with cyber harassment and related crimes. The NCPA has a hotline 1929 for anyone to report any concerns on child abuse.
The Budapest Convention on Cybercrime is an international treaty that effectively addresses internet crime. Sri Lanka became the first South Asian country to adopt the Convention: the State acceded to the Convention in May 2015, and it came into force in September 2015. The Convention seeks to harmonise national laws and improve investigative procedures. Signatories to the Convention are required to criminalise four categories of computer related crime: security breaches such as hacking, illegal data interception and system interferences,(Articles 2-6),computer forgery and computer related fraud (Articles 7,8), child pornography (Article 9) and copyright infringements (Article 10). A significant feature in the Convention is that it provides for an effective system of international co-operation. Cybercrimes are deemed to be extraditable offences (Article 24) and permits law enforcement authorities in one country to collect computer-based evidence for those in another country (Article 25 - general principles relating to mutual assistance). It also calls for establishing a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week (24/7) contact network to provide immediate assistance (Article 35).
Further interventions needed
A holistic, multifaceted national approach is needed to tackle the growing concern of on-line abuse and exploitation of children. Parents, teachers and principals need to be first educated not only on how on-line abuse takes place but also on how images can be doctored and uploaded on social media so that children feel safe to report without the fear of being needlessly reprimanded , ridiculed and punished. National organisations such as the NCPA, Women and Children’s Bureau Desks (there are approximately 36 Police Desks in the country), UN agencies such as UNICEF and the IT industry should work in partnership to bring about a positive catalyst change . It is also pertinent to consider the feasibility of setting up child helplines to deal specifically with on-line abuse so that children can voice their concerns and receive sound advice.
Children need to be educated on all forms of on-line abuse. When they are forewarned against attacks by sexual predators and hackers, they acquire the necessary knowledge to avoid potential pitfalls. Responsible behaviour on the part of children would ensure safe internet navigation.
(The writer has specialized as a researcher in the field of human rights with a special focus on protecting vulnerable groups. She has her LLB from the University of Colombo her LLM in International Human Rights Law from the University of Essex).