Debate: Should digital avatars be used in the fight against online child sex crime? 10.11.14

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Lemz and Terre des Hommes' film explaning the Sweetie campaign

A campaign to expose online paedophilia using a digital representation of a 10-year-old child was awarded the highest prize at the Dutch Design Awards last month. Following the conviction of a man in Brisbane as a result of an undercover operation using the avatar, we asked the head of the charity that commissioned the design and an Australian civil rights lawyer about the ethics of the campaign

A man in Australia has been sentenced to imprisonment after initiating a sexual encounter with Sweetie: a moving, speaking, digital representation of a 10-year-old Filipino girl that was last month awarded the highest prize at Dutch Design Week – the Future Award.

At the Dutch Design Awards in Eindhoven, Lemz, the agency that designed the avatar, was lauded for a project with a "strong journalistic approach that touches on a relevant theme and raises both legal and ethical questions". The jury said Sweetie was an example of what design could do for us. "It helps improve the world with an interactive approach to a phenomenon which many prefer to ignore. A design doesn't always have to be comfortable: Sweetie proves this and in doing so exceeds the standard of design."

The conviction of Scott Robert Hansen in Brisbane followed a two-month sting last year by Lemz and children's rights charity Terre des Hommes, who used the avatar to pose as a child in online video chatrooms, The organisations say they were contacted by thousands of men offering "Sweetie" money to perform sex acts. Hansen's details were among those they handed over to law enforcement bodies around the world. The judge in the Australian case said his belief that the girl he was interacting with was real was "good enough" for a conviction.

"We believe creative agencies should use their talents and resources to make this world a better place," said Lemz co-founder Mark Woerde in a statement in February. "The Sweetie campaign proves that creative agencies can have significant impacts on global problems that may seem to have no relevance to our industry or to our daily lives."

But the campaign has had a mixed reception. Legal and civil rights campaigners have warned of the wider implications of criminalising interactions with a non-existent being and questioned the ethics of private institutions interfering in the criminal justice system. 

Indeed, even the awards jury acknowledged that the Sweetie campaign raised legal and ethical questions about the role of design and digital technology and how far designers should go in their efforts to make a social impact. "Sweetie opens the debate on design practice. Who determines the definitions and the limitations? How should designers deal with the issue of privacy? And how do we monitor the ethics within the field?"

We spoke to the head of campaigns at Terre des Hommes, who said the operation had revealed the need to use such methods to tackle the growing problem of online sex crime, and an Australian civil rights lawyer, who argued that the use of digital avatars by private organisations was a step too far.


NO: "If the police can't use such methods, then why should a private organisation?"
Terry O'Gorman, president, Australian Council for Civil Liberties

The Dutch Design Award raises a number of important questions about the extent to which private organisations should be permitted to engage in criminal entrapment using a digital avatar.

In Australia and in the UK, police can go online pretending to be children to ensnare those who engage in sexual talk with them, as long as they do not actively set out to cause a person to do anything they wouldn't otherwise do. We believe that this is on the very edge of how far the criminal law should reach – and I am not aware of any cases of police creating a digital avatar to ensnare and arrest people. I question whether the courts would permit this and, if the police can't operate an avatar like Sweetie, why should a private organisation be allowed to do so – and engage in what we could call a new form of vigilantism?

People have sexual thoughts about all sorts of criminal offences, but they aren't charged unless they actually commit the crime. Yes, one could argue that the men who contacted Sweetie could have, in fact, been dealing with a real child, but the fundamental point of the legislation is to strike down the market in actual child exploitation. So when a judge sentences someone who has accessed a video of a real child, it is on the basis that this has enabled actual abuse to take place somewhere.

In Australia, you can be charged for possessing [obscene] drawings of a child and an avatar fits within that definition. But we objected when this aspect of the law was introduced, because we believed it went too far into the realm of criminal entrapment. A digital avatar is even more sexually evocative to those who have an interest in children than a drawing and therefore arguably goes even further in this direction. From that perspective, the Sweetie campaign highlights problems with the existing legislation.

The Dutch Design Awards judges' view might reflect the idea that anything goes in the pursuit of paedophiles, but I haven't seen and we wouldn't want to see a private organisation engaging in similar entrapment in relation to, say, drug trafficking or terrorism. The use of digital avatars is a particular concern in the current climate of ISIS using videos to recruit gullible young men from western countries to go to Syria to fight for the caliphate.

The Australian Federal Police should seriously consider developing a set of guidelines as to whether prosecution in Sweetie-type scenarios should be instituted in future.

YES: "The Sweetie campaign illustrates that a new approach is required to tackle online sex crime"
Hans Guyt, head of special campaigns, Terre des Hommes

In 2012, we observed a change in the modus operandus of young prostitutes in the Philippines: a shift away from streets and bars to internet cafes, with men in rich parts of the world paying children in poor countries to perform sex acts in front of webcams. The only way to find out how this works is to go online in the guise of nine and ten-year-old children.

After we first published information about this phenomenon, Lemz, an advertising agency in Amsterdam, approached us and suggested developing an avatar – a computer image of a Filipino girl – and organising an undercover operation. As we work with children in the Philippines, the names, appearances and their use of language are familiar to us. We used this knowledge to develop the virtual girl, called Sweetie.

According to the FBI and the UN, there are more than 750,000 men on the internet at any given moment looking to engage children in sexual activities. We wanted to have a clearer idea about what this figure meant and establish if identification of these individuals was problematic, since, in the seven years leading up to 2013, only six men had been convicted for such practices worldwide.

Over a ten-week period, our four researchers were approached by more than 20,000 individuals trying to establish contact with our avatar. We identified 1,000 people from 71 different countries and handed over the files to international law enforcement bodies to follow up. The Australian police did exactly that and, on discovering that a particular individual was a re-offender on probation, obtained a search warrant and discovered child pornography on his computer.

We don't believe our activities can be considered as vigilantism, since we handed over all the information to law enforcement officials, leaving it to them to investigate. The question of entrapment is one we have considered from the start and a practice we have avoided at all times. These men are not victims of entrapment – they were well aware of what they were doing. In all our chats, we emphasised that we were a 10-year-old child, but they took the initiative, insisting on sex shows and offering payment in return.

The information used to identify the perpetrators was also handed over voluntarily. Eager as they were to maintain the conversation, they had no problem passing on Skype and email details, which was enough to trigger search engines. Screen shots were compared to Facebook accounts to complete the identification process.

Our main objective was to highlight the scale of this phenomenon. International law enforcement authorities now recognise the seriousness of the problem, as well as their inability to deal with it, given the constraints under which they have to operate.

The Sweetie campaign has illustrated that a new approach is required. We believe there is enough reason to review the mandate of the police, the means at their disposal and the legal framework in which they operate. Law enforcement should increase its visibility online to increase public confidence in the security of the internet and offer a deterrent to criminals. They should be allowed to patrol public spaces on the internet, just as they are allowed to patrol the streets and other public areas.

Do you think digital avatars such as Sweetie should be used to fight online child exploitation? Should designers and other private organisations take it upon themselves to tackle social problems in this way? Tell us what you think using the comment box below



Debika Ray


Images: Lemz, Terre des Hommes

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The use of digital avatars is a particular concern in the current climate of ISIS using videos to recruit gullible young men from western countries to go to Syria to fight for the caliphate

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