Sexed up cy­berspace

Vi­o­lence against women on the In­ter­net is grow­ing in the Philip­pines, but the laws to pros­e­cute the per­pe­tra­tors re­main in­ad­e­quate.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN - By DONNA DEMETILLO-MEN­DOZA

YOU are surf­ing the In­ter­net. In the mood to lis­ten to some mu­sic you go to and as the search en­gine ma­te­ri­alises on your screen you type the de­sired web­site ad­dress.

One click. One more. You are now on your favourite web­site. As you scroll to pick your song, sud­denly there’s a pop up ... a scant­i­ly­clad young girl is ask­ing you out on a ‘date’.

“Do you want to meet me tonight? Call me and we’ll get to­gether,” she says provoca­tively.

Neon-coloured num­bers flash the next mo­ment. Hur­riedly you shut this win­dow but then an­other one pops up in just a few sec­onds.

This is what the av­er­age on­line ex­pe­ri­ence is all about these days. Within 15 min­utes of hav­ing logged onto the World Wide Web, you end up be­ing so­licited by girls barely out of school.

Anna (name changed) used to be one of them. She grew up in a world where sex­ual abuse was an ev­ery­day oc­cur­rence. She was sub­jected to fam­ily abuse, hav­ing been raped by her fa­ther, cousin, and her brother. Later, she be­came ‘fa­mous’ on­line as “Hot De­light” or “Asian Babe”.

She would pose, dance, and play with her­self in front of the cam­era in a rel­a­tive’s com­puter shop. Be­sides this, Anna was also made to meet cus­tomers in ho­tels, and pay­ments for the sex­ual ser­vices she ren­dered – she made 1,500 pe­sos (RM107) per client – were de­posited di­rectly into the web­site owner’s bank ac­count.

To keep any­one from find­ing her, Anna was fre­quently made to shift her base; the web­sites that fea­tured her also var­ied.

Anna was fi­nally res­cued from the clutches of cy­ber-pros­ti­tu­tion when she was 12. How­ever, by then the young­ster was not only suf­fer­ing from mul­ti­ple phys­i­cal prob­lems, in­clud­ing acute bleed­ing and anaemia, she had also un­der­gone ir­repara­ble psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma.

Be it at home, in the work­place or on the streets, women and girls lead vul­ner­a­ble lives. Across the globe, so­ci­eties have been fight­ing vi­o­lence against women for decades now. To­day women are not even safe on­line any more, for cy­ber crime is hard to trace and tougher to fight.

There has been a steady rise in the num­ber of cases of cy­ber vi­o­lence against women in The Philip­pines. One of the first high pro­file cases that sent shock waves through­out this South­east Asian na­tion was the sex video scan­dal in­volv­ing pop­u­lar ac­tress Ka­t­rina Halili and Dr Hay­den Kho in May 2009.

The case cre­ated head­lines, as Halili vowed to make the well-known cos­metic sur­geon pay for re­leas­ing a video of their in­ti­mate mo­ments on the In­ter­net. The Philip­pines cover-girl of Maxim mag­a­zine sought the help of the coun­try’s Na­tional Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion (NBI) to de­ter­mine what case could be filed against Kho. Me­dia re­ports quoted her say­ing: “He should pay so that men will not do the same to other women, so that there will be no more vic­tims.”

But while the Halili-kho case cre­ated some aware­ness about the ex­is­tence of vi­o­lence against women in cy­berspace, not much has been done by way of tack­ling the grow­ing prob­lem. Pro­gramme Of­fi­cer of the Women’s Le­gal Bureau (WLB) (a fem­i­nist le­gal non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion based in Manila), Jor­dan Chang says, “De­spite recog­ni­tion that the prob­lem ex­ists, it is an is­sue that is largely over­looked and even triv­i­alised.”

Ac­cord­ing to the ac­tivist, “Even with­out phys­i­cal con­tact, the vic­tim can feel the vi­o­lence of the act. More­over, there may be longterm psy­cho­log­i­cal scars as a con­se­quence.”

To­day, tech­nol­ogy is be­ing ex­ploited for crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties and en­tails huge prof­its. There’s an in­creas­ing trend of cy­ber-sex be­ing in­ter­twined with cy­ber-pornog­ra­phy and cy­ber-pros­ti­tu­tion, thanks to pow­er­ful crim­i­nal syn­di­cates that have no com­punc­tions about vic­tim­is­ing in­no­cent and vul­ner­a­ble women and girls. Of course, poverty and the lin­ger­ing eco­nomic cri­sis are only mak­ing it eas­ier to tar­get vul­ner­a­ble women.

Af­ter the Halili-kho scan­dal made big news, many more chill­ing cases have come to light. In Cor­dova, Mac­tan, a pic­turesque hol­i­day re­sort in the Philip­pines, a mar­ried cou­ple was ar­rested for in­volv­ing their five chil­dren – aged be­tween 4 and 16 – in cy­ber-pornog­ra­phy.

Ac­cord­ing to Jun Cong­zon, NBI’S Chief of Cy­ber Crime Unit, the bureau re­ceives around five to 12 such cases from Metro Manila alone. But, while the num­ber of such cases keeps es­ca­lat­ing, none have se­cured pros­e­cu­tion be­cause of a lack of leg­isla­tive pro­tec­tion as well as be­cause of their “cross-bor­der” na­ture.

“Some cases have reached the pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice, but there has been no feed­back yet,” re­veals Cong­zon, whose unit was es­tab­lished in Au­gust 2010.

He adds, “Ba­si­cally, the prob­lem is iden­ti­fy­ing the per­pe­tra­tors be­cause ISPS (in­ter­net ser­vice providers) and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies refuse to co­op­er­ate in pro­vid­ing vi­tal in­for­ma­tion to track down the source of the of­fence. In ad­di­tion, these crimes cross borders and much of the in­for­ma­tion has to come from abroad.”

Other chal­lenges faced by Cong­zon’s unit in­clude the lack of foren­sic equip­ment, per- son­nel and in­ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing of per­son­nel as well as law en­forcers, prose­cu­tors and judges. Added to these is the dif­fi­culty in reg­u­lat­ing the con­tent of both lo­cal and for­eign web­sites, as well as the ab­sence of a cy­ber-crime law in the Philip­pines.

Cur­rently, the NBI books such cases un­der ex­ist­ing laws on pornog­ra­phy, vi­o­lence against women and chil­dren, photo and video voyeurism and hu­man traf­fick­ing.

But as WLB le­gal re­searcher Maria Karla Espinosa, puts it, “There is no ex­press and ex­act def­i­ni­tion of new, emerg­ing forms of vi­o­lence against women (VAW), or the con­cept of In­for­ma­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Tech­nol­ogy (Ict)-re­lated VAW in Philip­pine law, although re­cent laws (RA 9208 and RA 9995) recog­nise that some forms of VAW can be com­mit­ted through the use of ICT.”

This am­bi­gu­ity in the le­gal def­i­ni­tion cre­ates prob­lems while prose­cut­ing ICT-VAW cases. For now, it is di­vided into three broad cat­e­gories: cy­ber-ha­rass­ment, cy­ber-pornog­ra­phy and cy­ber-traf­fick­ing. Espinosa ex­plains, “Take out the word ‘cy­ber’ and they be­come fa­mil­iar terms and crimes un­der our law. They are vir­tual coun­ter­parts of ex­ist­ing crimes.”

But Espinosa ques­tions whether the law recog­nises cy­berspace as a dis­tinct world or an ex­ten­sion of the real world. More­over, in many cases it is dif­fi­cult to iden­tify the of­fender and the place where the of­fence was com­mit­ted.

“How do we trace (the of­fender)? Know­ing the place where the of­fence was com­mit­ted is im­por­tant in crim­i­nal cases in or­der to de­ter­mine proper ju­ris­dic­tion for prose­cut­ing the of­fence,” she adds.

Deal­ing with ICT-VAW cases also throws up is­sues re­lated to the free­dom of speech and ex­pres­sion. The right to privacy is a mat­ter of con­cern as well.

“Does the law pur­posely recog­nise ar­eas of privacy? Does the law treat cy­berspace as a public space that is sub­ject to gov­ern­ment con­trol and reg­u­la­tion; or is it a pri­vate space?” asks Espinosa.

All her ques­tions re­main unan­swered. But one thing is for sure: cy­berspace vi­o­lence is a grave crim­i­nal of­fence that has se­verely detri­men­tal ef­fects on women, and that the is­sue needs to be pri­ori­tised so that con­crete le­gal sys­tems may be put in place. — Women’s Fea­ture Ser­vice.

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