Online child sexual abuse or online child sexual exploitation means using information and communications technology (ICT) to facilitate the sexual abuse and the sexual exploitation of children.
Child sexual abuse refers to the contact or interaction between a child and an older or more knowledgeable child or adult (for instance, a stranger, sibling, parent, or caretaker) when the child is used as an object for sexual needs.
Child sexual exploitation encompasses sexualized acts aimed at a child. All online child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation are prohibited by national, regional, and international laws. However, how online child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation are criminalized by law varies. This post will explore offenses involving child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation.
1. Child sexual abuse material
Civil society, law enforcement agencies, academics, and others have rejected the term “child pornography” because it minimizes what is happening: child sexual abuse rather than sex with a child. “Child sexual abuse material” is the preferred term. Despite this, the term “child pornography” continues to be used in national, regional, and international legislation.
Websites, Internet newsgroups, web-conferencing software, social media platforms, unencrypted and encrypted communication applications, and other online platforms create, share, and distribute child sexual abuse materials. Text messages, instant messaging, email messages, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and peer-to-peer file-sharing networks also distribute this information.
Online child sexual abusers can be members of large online communities or smaller online communities where child sexual abuse material is sent directly between perpetrators via various applications, such as encrypted messaging platforms. Platform affiliation rules and codes of conduct are strictly enforced in the online communities of child sex offenders. Members must follow the official affiliation rules and codes of conduct to remain active members of the site, which the site’s moderators and administrators enforce.
Individuals are frequently promoted and/or rewarded for their contributions on these forums based on their contributions to the site. Active participation in the forums improves a person’s reputation and can help them advance in the community regarding position, standing, and/or rank. The advertisement, posting, distribution, or otherwise making available of child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation material is linked to active participation in these forums. Members must continue to post such material to maintain access to the sites and/or gain access to more child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation material. Failure to contribute to the site will revoke privileges and remove them from the site. For verification purposes, some child sexual abuse and child sexual exploitation websites require new members to post child sexual abuse material during registration.
In some jurisdictions, the possession, production, and distribution of child sexual abuse and exploitation materials are illegal. Some jurisdictions do not prohibit the production of computer-generated child sexual abuse material, which includes child sexual abuse material and other wholly or partly artificially or digitally created sexualized images of children, through digital media; instead, they prohibit only images depicting real children. Possession of child sexual abuse material with the intent to distribute the material is illegal in some countries. The mere possession of the material would not be considered a crime in those countries.
2. Child grooming
Child grooming is how an adult “friends” a child to sexually abuse the child. The grooming of children can take place both online and offline. According to research, girls are disproportionately the victims of this crime, while men are disproportionately the perpetrators.
The term “grooming” is rarely used in law; instead, terms like “luring,” “enticement,” “solicitation,” and “seduction” are used. Some laws make it illegal to groom a child online if it can be proven that the offender intended to meet the child in person, while others do not.
Grooming is done in a variety of ways. Victim selection, which is based on the victim’s appeal, ease of access, and vulnerability; victim contact; rapport-building and forming a friendship between the offender and the victim; and the victim’s sexual abuse or sexual exploitation are all essential elements (e.g., the coercion or manipulation of the victim into producing child sexual abuse or child sexual exploitation material).
3. Live-streaming child sexual abuse
The broadcasting of child sexual abuse in real-time is known as live-streaming child sexual abuse. Viewers can choose to be passive or active during the live stream. Active viewers pay to participate in the child sexual abuse by communicating what sexual acts they want to see performed by the abusers, the child, and/or the child’s handlers (active viewers engage in “child sexual abuse to order”).
In 2016, some unidentified individuals in Canada live-streamed child sexual abuse in the Philippines, exposing children to sexual exploitation and abuse. The defendant forced the children to perform specific sex acts on adult females and/or other children during the live sessions. After pleading guilty to charges of possessing, accessing, and making child sexual abuse material and conspiring to commit the indictable offense of sexual assault on a child, the defendant was sentenced to five years in prison.
The practice of live-streaming child sexual abuse is illegal. The criminalization of this act, however, varies by country. Active participants in the live-streaming of child sexual abuse could face charges under laws that make the production of such material illegal. Passive participants in live-streamed child sexual abuse may also face charges, depending on national laws. If they have a recording of the session and/or pictures taken during the live stream, passive and active participants in live-streaming child sexual abuse can be charged with possessing child sexual abuse material.
Nonetheless, participants, abusers, and/or child handlers may not record child sexual abuse that is live-streamed to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities and make it more difficult for them to be prosecuted for this cybercrime. Financial transactions between participants and abusers in live-streamed child sexual abuse (e.g., online payment services, money transfers, and payments using digital currencies) can be used to detect this cybercrime in these cases as well. They can be used as proof of cybercrime in court.
Xoom.com, an online money transfer service, was one such example. Certain users of a well-known messaging service were selling child sexual abuse material and live-streaming child sexual abuse, according to a well-known messaging service provider. Multiple instances of their account holders believed to be buying and selling child sexual abuse material and participating in live-streaming child sexual abuse from the Philippines were discovered during the service provider’s investigation. This case highlights an important aspect of live-streaming child sexual abuse and material. While such crimes are committed primarily for the perpetrators’ sexual gratification, the creation and distribution of child sexual abuse material have a financial motivation for the perpetrators.