Protecting Children from Cybercrime: Online Child Grooming


In the Netherlands a massive case of internet child abuse has been reveiled this week. A 48 year old man has been arrested and is suspected of online child grooming and sexually abusing hundreds of girls. At least 11 girls stated they have had a meeting with the man and were sexually abused by him. The Dutch police has found 26.000 videos and 144.000 photographs during a raid on his house. The man has been active for eight years. What is online child grooming and what is the International and European policy on combating this form of cyber crime and internet abuse?

Child grooming is a process of emotional manipulation by which pedophiles prepare children and youth for sexual exploitation. The grooming process typically involves an adult befriending a young person and then winning his or her trust by showering the youth with flattery, sympathy, gifts of money or modeling jobs, and other personal attention. Finally, the groomer attempts to sexualize the relationship, seeking to control the child and continue the abuse, which may include child pornography or even sex trafficking. Pedophiles go where children go and today that includes the Internet. Child grooming goes online when pedophiles use the Internet for the grooming process. Adults may begin the grooming process by visiting forums where youth interact, such as social networking sites, online games (which may use two-way voice and video technology) or chat rooms, or contact children through email and text messages. Pedophiles may use the information that children reveal about themselves online and target vulnerable youngsters with low self-esteem, family problems, or lack of money.

United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice

The CCPCJ is focusing on this growing problem. The grow of the Internet gives criminals greater opportunities to entrap new victims, including children. Specifically, new information technologies are being misused to commit crimes such as: (a) child exploitation; (b) production, distribution, and possession of child pornography; (c) exposure to harmful content; (d) grooming, harassment, and sexual abuse; and (e) cyber bullying. The latest technologies make it easier for criminals to contact children in ways that were not previously possible. Children are particularly vulnerable to the exploitation of online predators because they rely heavily on networking websites for social interaction. Offenders use false identities in chat rooms to lure victims into physical meetings, thus connecting the worlds of cyber and physical crime. When this happens, virtual crime often leads to traditional forms of child abuse and exploitation such as trafficking and sex. The victims of online exploitation must live with their abuse for the rest of their lives. The CCPCJ also believes that exposure to certain content and easy contact with criminals online may affect the integral development of children. And once information and images are online, they remain online forever and are available to an increasing number of persons.
The CCPCJ, a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the governing body of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), undertakes international action to combat national and transnational crime. They promote the role of criminal law to prevent illegal trafficking in natural resources, crime prevention in urban areas, and improve the efficiency and fairness of criminal justice systems. CCPCJ Member States reached consensus on strategic approaches to address cyber crime against children, which are reflected in a draft resolution for adoption by the Economic and Social Council. The draft resolution is significant for establishing priorities that can be categorized into four areas: research, prevention, punishment, and cooperation. "The exploitation of children is not a new phenomenon, but the digital age has increased the problem and created more vulnerability to children," said Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While information and communications technology advances have not necessarily given rise to entirely new forms of child abuse, they have in some cases changed the nature and dimension of the exploitation.

International protection

The U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) covers the most common forms of computer related crime because such offenses are (a) transnational, (b) involve organized criminal groups, and (c) are committed with the intent to achieve a material or financial benefit. The term “benefit” in the TOC is interpreted broadly to include sexual gratification, such as the receipt or trade of materials by members of child grooming rings, the trading of children by pedophile rings or cost-sharing among ring members. Additionally, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the TOC, is relevant to the misuse of information technology to abuse and exploit children. Because organized crime and corruption often go hand in hand, the U.N. Convention against Corruption could also be useful in breaking up online child exploitation rings. While the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) does not explicitly prohibit online child abuse, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography could give states points to set out policy on this problem which is in the best interests of the children.

European protection

The European Union is a leader in regional efforts to harmonize State laws aimed at combating sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. The Council of the European Union’s framework decision 2004/68/JHA seeks greater police and judicial cooperation by establishing a regime of common criminal provisions, sanctions, aggravating circumstances, assistance to victims, and jurisdiction. Additionally, the 2001 Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, along with its Explanatory Report, is aimed at pursuing common criminal policies in order to protect society from cybercrime, including offenses related to child pornography. The Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (also known as Lanzarote Convention) goes a step further and criminalizes any use of information technologies to sexually harm or abuse children. With the passing of the 2011 EU Directive on combating sexual abuse, sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, all EU member states have until the end of 2013 to incorporate the directive into their national legislation. At this time only four countries in Europe have grooming legislation: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. These countries however are critical of the effect of the grooming legislation because practice has proved that it has been difficult to work with and the legislation has led to very few convictions so far. For example in the Netherlands. Dr. Renée Kool from Utrecht University "the problems in the Netherlands also include difficulties preventing crimes before sexual abuse has occurred and the need to identify vulnerable children who are likely to become victims. In practice, the Dutch cases that have led to conviction had already resulted in the sexual abuse of the victim by the time the crime was detected. Since the sexual abuse of minors is already regulated in Dutch legislation and carries a more severe penalty than grooming, there is doubt whether the grooming legislation has had the intended protective effect. On the other hand, it is not known how many cases are intercepted by the police without there being a strong enough case to present in court. Thus the preventive effects of the legislation may be larger than are shown by official crime statistics".

During a United Nations meeting on 27 september 2013 in Vienna, experts from the fields of law enforcement, research, industry and academia reviewed the effects of new information technology on the abuse and exploitation of children, along with measures that have proven effective in combating it. The experts agreed that besides legal protection and legislation we first of all should start prevention. Better education and awareness are essential to protect our children. "We are not going to simply prosecute our way out of this problem. Parents must work to overcome the 'generational digital divide' and take a vested interest in the technology they give their children, educating them on their safe use and on the potential ramifications of careless online behaviour."