During the global pandemic hour and countries being in lockdown, people including both children and adults are spending more time online and excessively using the internet. Resultantly, causing increase in production and distribution of child sexual abuse material due to excessive use by perpetrators, adversely targeting children using the internet. The link between child pornography and child abuse cannot be ignored and termed as unrelated. Hence, it is important to understand the issue of online child sex abuse material/child pornography in India, reasons and far reaching impact of increase during the lockdown, implications of child pornography in Indian jurisprudence, and the step forward towards a “change for betterment”.
In April 2020, the India Child Protection Fund (ICPF report) came out with a report on the consumption of child pornography content in India. The ICPF has reported a spike of a massive 95%. The ICPF report cites data from the largest pornography website in the world “Pornhub”. The website has significant traffic in India during the lockdown period as compared to pre-lockdown time. Most of the increase in traffic is attributed to demand for child pornography content. The report substantiates this from online website monitoring data, which shows the jumping increase in search for keywords such as child porn’, ‘sexy child’ and ‘teen sex videos’ and is further expected to increase in the coming times. It is extremely shocking to know the harsh reality of the threat that children in India are facing during such times of distress. Millions of paedophiles, child rapists and child pornography addicts (online sexual predators) have increased consumption during the lockdown period of child pornography online and this is an extreme hazard to children in the country.
Based on a recent report from the Childline India Helpline, children have been more prone to sexual abuse during the lockdown. This is evident from the helpline having received more than 92000 SOS calls requesting for protection from abuse and exploitation of children during the national lockdown.
Reasons for the rise of Child Pornography during the lockdown:
The rise in the consumption of child pornography can be attributed to various reasons. There is a prolonged closure of schools because of the complete lockdown during pandemic time. Though the lockdown is easing down, however, with more emphasis on home schooling and blended learning, children will be spending more time at home and on online platforms. Further, going ahead in the digital era, we cannot stop our children being exposed to the transforming world of digital technology.
Under such circumstances, online sexual predators and cyber stalkers may continue to lure children into sexual abuse and exploitation, through online and social media platforms. Children are more prone to being targets for online sexual predators as they are home for a long time and spend more time online. Children are more vulnerable due to less supervision and isolation during the lockdown. Easy access to smartphones and high-speed data is another significant reason for rise in online child sexual abuse. Children use internet for playing online games, socializing with friends or to attend online classes. They may be prone to various online child sex abuse criminal acts by online sexual predators, such as cyber-trafficking, grooming (the act of befriending a child and sometimes the family, to reduce child’s inhibitions with the objective of sexual abuse), sextortion, sexting and live streaming of child sexual abuse.
Further, despite of ban on porn in India, individuals have been using virtual private networks (VPN) that helps in concealing location and criminal acts, to access child sexual abuse material.
Far reaching consequences and impact of excessive consumption of child pornography:
Increase in consumption of child pornography may have far reaching consequences. Online sexual predators may also record and store the child sexual abuse material to further distribute it. This material may also be used by them to extort the child to commit further abuse and exploitation.
According to United States Department of Justice (Criminal Division), the continuous production and distribution of child pornography increases the demand for new and more egregious images, perpetuating the continued molestation of child victims, as well as the abuse of new children. Children exploited in content available online must live with the permanency, longevity, and circulation of such a record of their sexual victimization. This often creates lasting psychological damage to the child, including disruptions in sexual development, self-image, and developing trusting relationships with others in the future.
It would not be wrong to say that every act of filming a child inappropriately can be termed as a potential abuse, however, nowadays with growth of the internet, access to such content has become far easier and more convenient, which has in turn lead towards a positive spike in the viewership. This upward spike may not only lead to more content creation and consumption but may also lead to potential sexual abuse of children by the hands of the perpetrators. The link between increase in pornographic content and consumption may pose a grave risk to the safety of children. The ICPF has reported that increased demand for online child sexual abuse material is making children more vulnerable to online sexual predators. The link between child pornography and sexual abuse is greater than we can think, a study suggests that men who are charged with internet child pornography offenses and those who commit hands-on child sex offenses are, in many cases, one and the same.
It is important to note that there has been a large influx in online child sexual abuse material production and distribution over the past few years. Simultaneously, there is a significant increase in the cases of child abuse in India, based on the statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB report) as many as 21,605 child rapes were recorded in 2018. The NCRB report highlighted that the overall crimes against children have increased over six times in the decade during 2008-2018, from 22,500 cases recorded in 2008 to 1,41,764 cases in 2018. As mentioned earlier, the government helpline has received 92,000 calls related to child abuse during the first 11 days of the lockdown and at the same time a large influx in consumption of child pornography is also reported. Thus, the link between child pornography and child abuse cannot be ignored and termed as unrelated. The nationwide lockdown outbreak has revealed a darker side in India as millions of online sexual predators have increased their activities online. Hence, an inference may be drawn that this addiction may not be restricted on the internet but may have an impact of child sexual abuse in real life; exposing children to danger and trauma in real life.
The Apex Court took Suo Moto cognizance in a petition dealing with the issue of investigation into the incidents and intermediary responsibility for content including child pornography, rape and gang rape, circulated on intermediary platforms. On the basis of recommendations by an Expert Committee constituted for the purpose, the Apex Court has directed Union of India to frame necessary Guidelines/ Standard Operating Procedure and implement them to eliminate child pornography, rape and gang rape imageries, videos and sites in content hosting platforms and other applications. The Petition is still pending until further orders.
Understanding the implications under Indian law for Child Pornography:
Indian laws seek to impose a penal as well as monetary consequence on production, distribution, storage or circulation of any pornographic content involving a child or children. Indian law for child pornography is enshrined under two legislations, which are as follows: –
- The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and its allied rules (POCSO); and
- The Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) and its allied guidelines.
- Liability under POCSO:
POCSO was introduced to protect children below 18 years from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography and provide for establishment of Special Courts for trial of such offences and for related matters. In Indian jurisprudence, the term “child pornography” means and include contents depicting sexually explicit activities involving a child. POCSO defines “Child Pornography” to mean as follows:
“any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a child which include photograph, video, digital or computer-generated image indistinguishable from an actual child and image created, adapted, or modified, but appear to depict a child”.
POCSO, by way of a recent amendment has included the provisions for providing two-fold punishments i.e. punishment for using a child for pornographic purposes and, punishment for storage of pornographic material involving child. As per POCSO, a person who is using a child or children for pornographic purposes shall be punished with imprisonment which shall not be less than five years along with fine. The imprisonment in the event of second or subsequent conviction shall not be less than seven years. Further any person who stores, for commercial purposes any pornographic material in any form involving a child shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years or with fine or with both.
It would be important here to mention that the Rajya Sabha has recently taken cognizance against the issues of pornography on social media and its effect on children and society. The Rajya Sabha formed an ad-hoc committee which has presented its report to the chairman of Rajya Sabha and was subsequently laid on the table of Rajya Sabha. In the said report, the ad-hoc committee has suggested a series of measures, most important of which was the recommendation regarding broadening the definition of child pornography.
- Liability under IT Act:
The IT Act has adequate provisions to deal with prevailing cybercrimes. Section 67B of the Act specifically provides stern punishment for publishing, browsing or transmitting child pornography in electronic form. Section 67B targets the object of child pornography, it criminalizes pornographic depiction of a child. Further, Section 79 of the IT Act and The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules 2011 requires that the intermediaries shall observe due diligence while discharging their duties and shall inform the users of computer resources to act accordingly. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code also brings pornographic material under the gamut of criminal law.
Further, the Rajya Sabha has also recommended to measures to deal with the proliferation of child sexual abuse material as well as stricter monitoring and reporting liabilities on the intermediaries.
Way forward: “Change for betterment”
At this hour the question which arises is that even where laws are in place, how are existing laws efficient enough to deal with the devil of child pornography and child sexual abuse. In this context, International Center for Missing and Exploited children (ICMEC) had come up with parameters to assess a country to determine whether laws of a country are effective enough to deal with the issues regarding child pornography, these parameters are as follows:
- Are there existing laws criminalizing child pornography?
- Does existing law include a legal definition of child pornography?
- Is the possession of child pornography a crime?
- Is the distribution of child pornography via computer and the Internet a crime?
- Are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) required to report suspected child pornography to law enforcement?
Based on these parameters, Indian law may answer all questions in affirmative regarding the law being in place, however, the ground reality is slightly different even when the laws are adequate to punish the perpetrators. The larger problem in India is pertaining to the administration and enforcement of these laws, which is as follows: –
Need of action against intermediaries and resolving the difficulty in tracing the identity of perpetrators: There exist practical challenges against enforcement such as the lack of action against intermediaries and facilitators who are facilitating the distribution of child sexual abuse material. It becomes difficult to trace and identify the perpetrators, as a large number of individuals cover their location by using VPNs to circumvent the system to access the online child sexual abuse material. Another challenge is the lack of monitoring of intermediaries such as ISPs and web applications. Hence, there is a need for a regular monitoring and action mechanism by authorities on the abusers, viewers, and the intermediaries. Even though the Ministry of Home Affairs has also established the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal for reporting of child sexual abuse material, stricter accountability should also be imposed on the ISPs such as a blanket ban on VPNs and a regular weekly or monthly reporting requirement.
Need for awareness and cure for societal pressure: One of the biggest lacuna is lack of awareness regarding the issue and the pressure created in the society regarding acknowledgment of crimes surrounding children. One of the resilient ways forward is to create awareness and encourage people to talk about it. This could be done by “Digital media literacy” for parents, children and people in general. There is a need to sensitize the ill effects of consuming child pornography as well as the penal consequences under various laws. A methodical educational programme is required to be spread across various mediums such as television, internet, radio, print media, social media etc. Further, communities and societies should constitute watchdog groups. For the future, Ministry of HRD and other educational bodies such as UGC, CBSE, ICSE, or state boards should make it mandatory for the affiliated schools, colleges or other institutions to run programs for spreading awareness on child pornography.
Greater need for parental control and monitoring: A larger concern, as already pointed out, is unfettered access to internet by children which has increased during the lockdown. At this hour, it becomes important for the parents to educate children regarding risks they may face when going online such as grooming, sexual coercion and extortion, sexting, bullying or accessing harmful content. This can be achieved by following ways such as talking to children about online safety, monitoring the web browsing and using a framework or applications to keep a check on the online browsing activity of children. Restricting the use of webcams and blocking the potentially harmful websites. It is also important for parents to speak to children about the content or applications they are browsing. Further, it is also important for parents to provide their children with a comfortable environment to discuss any stressful issues bothering the children. The parents should seek help of the authorities wherever necessary and report any potential instance of online child sexual abuse.
Finally, our thinking requires healing for the creation of a change. A “radical community healing” will certainly help in decluttering individual minds towards a perspective to realize the tender age of children and the long-term psychological impact on delicate minds. We all co-exist in a revolutionary age, so there is a “hope” to change the situation holistically for the future generation of our planet.