By Emma Batha
LONDON, November 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As a schoolgirl, Sarah Cooper grew closer to an online friend called “J”, forming a love for pop singers like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and opening up about issues at home . About two years later, he sold her into sexual slavery.
Cooper, from the US city of Boston, recounted how she was abducted and locked in a motel room after agreeing to meet “J”. Guarded by armed men, she was given drugs and sold for sexual purposes.
“J”, who used a cartoon as her profile picture, was not another teenager as she had assumed, but a much older man who she said had searched her posts online to attract her in conversation and build confidence.
With children spending significantly more time online during COVID-19 closures, Cooper said the pandemic had “created a playground for predators,” and called for global action to combat the rapid rise in online sexual exploitation and abuse.
Cooper’s story is highlighted in a report released Monday by rights advocacy group Equality Now, which examines the failure of international and national laws to keep pace with the evolution of technology and its misuse. .
He said predators are increasingly using social media and online gaming platforms to target potential victims, as they offer anonymity and operate under very limited regulation.
In the United States, more than half of child victims of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation first met their abusers through text, a website or mobile app, Equality Now said.
The report also highlighted an “explosion” of online sexual abuse in India and the dangers for children of downloading games and songs that may contain spyware that can access private images.
Gaps in laws
The study – facilitated by TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s pro bono legal network – examined legislation in the United States, Britain, India, Kenya and Nigeria.
He discovered loopholes in laws regarding online grooming, live streaming of sexual abuse, online sexual coercion and extortion, online sex trafficking, and image-based sexual abuse.
A major obstacle to investigating cases is the fact that there may be multiple offenders, victims and platforms, all based in different countries with different laws.
Equality Now called for the creation of a binding international agreement to combat these crimes, and the adoption of standard definitions and laws.
Co-author Tsitsi Matekaire warned that patchwork efforts by different countries to update their laws in isolation would be ineffective in tackling the scourge.
“The Internet is borderless,” she said. “Global challenges cannot be solved in national silos.”
Equality Now said the extent of the problem was unclear as many cases go unreported due to victims blaming themselves or being humiliated by others.
Cooper, now 24, said she did not go to the police after escaping because she doubted getting justice and feared her captors would retaliate.
But she said she decided to go public because she didn’t want what happened to her to happen to anyone else.
“We need to break the stigma around this,” Cooper said in a telephone interview, calling for the integration of internet safety into every country’s school curriculum and better training of enforcement agencies. laws.
She added: “Unfortunately, as technology advances, predators are going to find it easier to prey on younger and younger children.”
Concern for Africa
Steve Grocki, an expert on child exploitation at the US Department of Justice, said technological developments, the move towards encryption, widespread use of the dark web and even the growth of the Zoom video conferencing platform , hampered investigations.
The dark web is a part of the internet that is beyond the reach of search engines.
Tech and crime experts said the situation was particularly worrying in Africa, where many more young people were going online, families were unaware of online safety and police had little or no training on how to investigate digital crimes.
A Nigerian teenage girl shared how she mocked the police station after reporting that a man shared intimate photos of her online.
Grocki said the US government is sharing its expertise with African countries.
“We see a lot of the same things that we encounter in Western countries, but it is emerging at a much more accelerated rate in Africa,” he added.
Mohamed Daghar, an expert on trafficking and organized crime in Kenya, said traffickers exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to prey on children while schools were closed because they spent more time at home by line, often unattended.
“The use of technologies such as webcams has made it easier to target children,” Daghar said, adding that predators might start by asking a child to send a video of themselves dancing before tell them to take off their clothes.
Schools have focused on setting up e-learning during the pandemic without educating children and parents about internet safety, he said.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http: // news .trust.org)