Analysis: In Philippines, the fight against online sexual abuse of children exposes tensions between human rights and economic development
In a country whose economy has become heavily reliant on providing business process outsourcing services — among them content moderation for social media platforms where these exploitations generally take place — and where there are active efforts to digitize the economy and communications, will the new leader be able to keep capital coming in while at the same time safeguarding Filipino children?
Prior to the House passing the bill in January, the Senate had passed its own version last year. Since January, the two chambers have deliberated on the final provisions, which is expected to be ratified later this month, according to the bill’s backers. After both chambers ratify the reconciled version, it will be sent to the president for his signature.
In an introduction to the report from the Department of Social Welfare and Development and UNICEF, 2 million Filipino children were said to have been “subjected to Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation”.
Explaining these social norms, Jean Encinas Franco, Associate Professor of political science at the University of Philippines told CNN: “Filipinos often think that online sexual abuse is not harmful because the predator is not touching the children in reality. So, it doesn’t matter.”
As to why girls are overwhelmingly affected, Encinas Franco added: “It is likely the case that in rural or provincial states which report high cases of online sexual abuse, young boys often go to the farms or help fathers with scavenging goods from garbage. The girls, on the other hand, stay at home.”
Exposing tensions between human rights and economic development
Dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation in the Philippines is complicated further by the importance of tech companies to the Philippine economy.
More contentiously, most of the researchers and campaigners CNN spoke to felt that the Philippine government wasn’t doing enough to hold the social media platforms companies accountable because of the reliance of the economy on business process outsourcing (BPO) services.
“The reason for this inaction has, quite frankly, to do with the tension between human rights and neoliberal development models in the Philippines,” Alden Sajor Marte-Wood, an assistant professor at Rice University who studies the BPO industry, told CNN.
The BPO industry, also referred to as IT-business process management (IT-BPM), is made up of firms offering outsourced services such as payroll management, accounting, telemarketing, data recording, social media marketing, customer support or content moderation. This huge industry in the Philippines provides services for many of the same online platforms that have been used by those who exploit children.
It is this reliance on the same platforms where so many of these harms take place, that has prompted some to question how effective the new bill will be if it becomes law, as expected.
“The bill represents something of a paradox: it is an attempt to hold online platforms accountable for their role in facilitating online sexual abuse in a country with a domestic economy heavily dependent on the outsourcing of IT-BPO labor like social media content moderation from the global north.” Marte-Wood told CNN.
Father Shay Cullen, the founder of PREDA Foundation, a charitable organization which rescues and helps sexually and physically abused children in the Philippines recover, told CNN that the internet service providers also pose a problem. He said he has been campaigning for companies to adhere to already existing legislation: 2009’s Anti-Child Pornography Law which demands that internet service providers install software to block circulation of child pornography on the internet.
Internet service providers are “a very powerful lobby in the country” Father Cullen said, adding that in his experience, these companies would rather pay fines than respect the law.
Attorney Antoni Pauline Pascual, state counsel in the Philippines Department of Justice’s Office of Cybercrime, suggested that the reason for the perceived inaction on the part of the state to hold the social media platforms accountable for online sexual exploitation is because they need these social platforms’ help to curb the violence. Pascual told CNN: “There have been no adversarial actions taken against the online platforms [where] child abuse happens or where such materials are distributed as their cooperation is vital to conduct investigations of perpetrators.”
Jaye de la Cruz Bekema, an attorney in the office of Senator Risa Hontiveros who drafted the legislation, acknowledged that “there were a few proposals from industry that would have the effect of limiting their liability, but these proposals did not make it to the final draft.” She described conversations with online platforms as in large part collaborative and helpful, which she hopes will make the law easier to implement for whomever comes in as the next president of the Philippines. “Our bill went through a process of heavy stakeholder consultations, primarily with implementors on the ground,” she told CNN.
New leadership, a new approach to tackling online sexual abuse?
Whoever wins the presidential race, Marte-Wood remains sceptical. He doubts “change in presidential administration can adequately address these fundamental tensions between platform capitalism and human rights in the Philippines,” he told CNN, adding that there is a “very real possibility of capital flight or economic retaliation from these same platforms — the very companies that have now become central drivers of the BPO industry in the Philippines.”
Holding the right people accountable