International activists against the sexual abuse of children in the digital era met in Kolkata today to address the problem that has devastated young populations in many countries and is growing "exponentially" in India.
"Countries like the Philippines have been hit badly by abuse of children. It is happening here in India too. We have no idea of the size of the problem. Much of it is invisible, happening in the dark web. We need to know more so we can tackle it and so this two day conference," said Ananya Chakraborty, chairperson of the West Bengal Committee for the Protection of Child Rights.
Among experts from across the world is David Ruggiero, who works at Cebu in the Philippines. A grass roots level worker, he did not to do an on-camera interview as it would compromise his identity and his work. He busted a common myth that online sexual abuse of children happens largely on the dark web.
"The 'dark web' is a small percentage that sophisticated offenders are using to share that (child sexual abuse) material with one another. But in general, a child is going be exploited on the common social media platforms that children are using or traffickers are using to gain access to children," he said.
Cyber law expert Nitish Chandan can't quantify the problem but the helpline at his organization, Cyber Peace Foundation, is seeing a spiral in the number of revenge pornography cases - 15 to 20 daily. Given that, the proliferation of CSAM or Child Sexual Abuse Material is a serious concern.
"We have seen video streaming applications that are not regulated because there is no regulation for these companies in India, no privacy frameworks. They operate out of different countries and when law enforcers reach out to them for content take-down, no data is shared," he said.
India is not just a supplier of CSAM, it is also a major consumer. "A British research group put a bot of a child online that was soliciting and a huge number of customers were from India," Mr Chandan said.
What is worrying activists in India is, there are laws in place to tackle the problem but no urgency to implement them. For example, the umbrella act against child sexual abuse, POCSO or Protection of Children from Sexual Offences does not address the online issue.
"POCSO is actually meant for physical sexual abuse. Online abuseis not covered in POCSO," said PM Nair, a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
"But any type of abuse, whether online or offline, can be covered because it is still sexual abuse. If child pornography has been taken without the child's body being touched, still that is covered because that is sexual violation. Therefore POCSO covers it but you need the help of the IT Act," he added.
"What's needed is guidelines and rules to help investigators and the judiciary to get justice delivered," Professor Nair said.
While the magnitude of the problem remains unmapped, activists cite a figure put out by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, a US non-profit established by the US Congress in 1984.
In 2017, a study on India reported 2.4 million cases of online child sexual abuse in that year alone.