Manila - The Philippines has rapidly become a key hub of the billion-dollar global child cybersex industry, with operators aided by widespread poverty and legal loopholes that allow them to remain anonymous, police said on Friday.
Paying subscribers anywhere in the world can log in to sites operated from Manila and across the archipelago that stream the abuse of Filipino children on the Internet, Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa said.
"We are the origin, the source," Sosa, head of the Philippine National Police's anti-cybercrime unit, told a news conference, adding the industry spread rapidly across the country last year.
Police in Britain, Australia and the Philippines announced on Thursday that they had jointly dismantled a paedophile ring that streamed live sexual abuse of Filipino children as young as six over the Internet. In some cases, the victims' parents were involved.
Fifteen victims aged between six and 15 have been rescued, Britain's National Crime Agency said Thursday, adding that 29 people had been arrested, including 11 in the Philippines.
Three other ongoing investigations have identified 733 suspects, the agency added.
Sosa said the Philippines is a "top 10" purveyor of what he described as a global "cottage industry [worth] billions of dollars".
The victims are mostly younger than 18, he said, recounting how he took part in some police raids in the northern city of Angeles, where boys and girls aged between 10 and 14 performed "lewd acts" in front of cameras.
Some of the suspects arrested are Americans or Europeans, with Filipino "cohorts", he said.
In Manila, he said the streaming is done inside hotel rooms. It is also done in 31 of the Philippines' 81 provinces, with Angeles, the central city of Cebu and the southern city of Cagayan de Oro being the other main sites.
Parents themselves facilitate
The police official said some of the streaming is done inside shanties in the sprawling slums of the Philippines, a country of 100 million where one in four people live on less than a dollar a day, according to government data.
"The parents themselves facilitate the children's participation," Sosa said, adding their earnings help support the families.
Video streaming earned them at least $100 an hour, and photo sessions were worth up to $66, he added.
Sosa said most people who pay to view the activity are from the United States and Europe.
"There is no interest in child pornography in our culture. So it is mostly production."
Sosa said the crime had spread through the help of wireless technology where users cannot be effectively tracked by law enforcers.
The Philippine passed a law in September 2012 meant to stamp out cybercrimes including fraud, identity theft, spamming, and child pornography.
But the Supreme Court blocked the statute before it could take effect amid a legal challenge that it has yet to rule on.
Opponents objected to provisions that would authorise heavy prison terms for online libel, and give the state the power to shut down websites and monitor online activities.
"Under that law, telcos [telecommunications firms] are required to retain their data or log files within a period of six months. Since there is a temporary restraining order, there is no legal basis for them to comply," Sosa said.
Ronald Aguto, cybercrime division chief of the justice department's National Bureau of Investigation, said Filipino law enforcers are making do with other laws to go after offenders, including one against child pornography.
However, he said these were not enough.
"In these matters, time is of the essence. We need to swiftly get the data from Internet providers," he said in an interview over local DZBB radio.