LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Technology has fueled a surge in the buying and selling of children online for sexual abuse with advertising a child on the internet as "easy as booking an airfare", campaigners told an anti-slavery conference in London.
Lawyer Carol Robles-Roman, who was deputy mayor for legal affairs to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said legal reform was urgently needed to protect children from online sexual exploitation.
The International Justice Mission (IJM), an anti-slavery organization, this week launched a campaign to tackle the "horrific crime" of cybersex trafficking that involves the sexual abuse of children in front of a live webcam.
Michael Moran, assistant director of human trafficking and child exploitation at global police cooperation agency Interpol, said it was shocking that many children used in online abuse are so young they cannot yet speak. Many are sold by their families.
"About 90 percent of this child abuse takes place in the family home," Moran told Trust Women, an annual trafficking and women's rights conference run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Although there is no data to indicate the scale of the problem globally, law enforcement and other agencies in various countries are reporting that numbers are on the rise with technological advances making it hard to track down the buyers.
The United Nations children's agency UNICEF estimates 1.8 million children are trafficked into the sex trade every year - but this does not include cybersex trafficking.
The IJM said in a statement that the Philippines national police receive well over 2,000 referrals a month of potential online exploitation of Filipino children.
The organization said this was made possible by greater than ever connectivity to the internet with people in North America or Europe paying as little as $20 for a "show".
The head of the Australian Federal Police recently told local reporters they received about 4,500 referrals of child exploitation material in 2014 but this jumped to 11,000 in 2015.
In the United States, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported a 98 percent rise in reports of suspected child sex trafficking in the past five years, much of it online.
Robles-Roman, now CEO of Legal Momentum, which fights for the legal rights of women, said laws must keep up with technology and ensure children can be protected in an increasingly digital world.
"How can it be legal to advertise children for sex online? I'm here to tell you it is as easy as booking an airfare online," she told Trust Women.
Robles-Roman said a film to be released in the United States next year, "I am Jane Doe", would highlight the issue by focusing on the real-life case of Backpage.com, the second-largest U.S. online classified ad service after Craigslist.
Backpage.com was accused of knowingly profiting from the commercial sexual exploitation of children with a case filed by three women who were sold on Backpage.com from the age of 15.
The case was heard in the District Court in Boston but was dismissed by a judge who held that Backpage was protected under the federal law, the Communications Decency Act. The decision was later upheld by the Court of Appeals, she said.
The controversy over Backpage.com is at the center of a continuing debate over how much liability tech companies should face for user-generated content posted on their platforms.
Robles-Roman said it was inconceivable that a law whose clear intent was to protect children from harmful materials can continue to be used to give blanket immunity to website operators that provide an online marketplace for pedophiles.
"We need change to laws to protect children in this digital age," she said.
Reporting by Paola Totaro, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org