Prostitution, Child Predators and the Internet

By Ronda Woolston for –

Like many facets of life, the advent of the Internet and related technology is changing the sex industry and how child sex predators (hereinafter “predators”) can be tracked down. Prostitutes can now use the Internet not only to advertise their services but also to avoid danger. While predators have found ways to use the Internet to find victims in chat rooms and abuse children via web cam sex tourism, for those seeking to stop predators the Internet is a major piece of new technology that can help to track down and stop predators.

Effects on Prostitution

Prostitution is known as the “oldest profession” but the advent of the Internet has produced some significant changes for those who choose to become prostitutes.[1] For those prostitutes that have access to the Internet and the know-how to utilize it, it has helped them to avoid risks that in the past were considered inherent to the profession such as: sexually transmitted infections, rape, and other violence.[2] Prostitutes that have access to the Internet are potentially safer because they have the ability to use online forums where they can share and receive tips from other prostitutes about staying safe and avoiding problem clients or vouching for past clients they consider safe.[3] Prostitutes can even subscribe to services that allow customers to pay for background checks before meeting, and even share medical information.[4] This technology has allowed prostitutes more freedom to work solo while remaining relatively safe, thereby avoiding situations that could become exploitive and controlling.[5] An additional benefit to the public is that when prostitutes utilize the Internet to gain clients it takes interactions between prostitutes and “Johns” off the street and away from third parties.[6]

As the Internet becomes a bigger part of prostitution, it may become physically safer for prostitutes but much more can be done to protect the vulnerable people in that industry. For example, protection could be enhanced by legalizing prostitution and maintaining the illegality of a third party, like a pimp or trafficker, from benefitting financially from a prostitute’s work. Prostitution will never go away no matter what methods governments try to use to stop it.[7] The changes brought on by the use of the Internet in prostitution will greatly benefit adults who willingly engage in prostitution, but it is unlikely to help exploited children. The Internet is more likely to allow those who control them or are seeking victims to take their activities off the streets, where it is more visible, and onto the Internet where they are able to exploit children with more anonymity. The Internet, however, does provide some new means of tracking down predators who use the Internet to locate (via chat rooms) and abuse (via “webcam sex tourism) child victims.

Effect on Efforts to Catch Child Sex Predators

Predators have learned that the Internet is a potential source of victims. This is evident in their use of chat rooms to search for potential victims and in the rise of webcam sex tourism. Groups are working to end this and are developing technology to catch predators online, including technology that mimics a young girl in chat rooms, and in the creation of an incredibly lifelike avatar of a young Filipina girl.

1. Chat Rooms

When using chat rooms predators attempt to establish relationships with and groom potential victims.[8] Law enforcement has been aware of this for some time and will instigate sting operations by using officers to pose as minor children online and engage with others with the intent to attract and apprehend predators.[9] This practice has obvious challenges in that it may be difficult for fully mature adult law enforcement officials to sound convincingly like minor children, or as budgets are stretched agencies may not have the officer hours to devote to web chatting. New technology, however, could be used to solve that problem. Researchers at the University of Deusto in Spain have created an “artificially intelligent chatbot” named Negobot that is designed to sound like a young and vulnerable girl.[10] Negobot is not currently available to law enforcement but could be used successfully by them in the future. Negobot identifies predators through conversations and is designed to enter web chats in a “neutral” mode, discussing only general subjects like music or movies, and will stay in that state unless the other user brings up sexual content.[11] Once this happens Negobot switches to “possibly pedophile” mode and begins to share personal information, like a desire for companionship or trouble at home.[12] If the other user intensifies the sexual content of the chat, the Negobot will switch to the final mode of “allegedly pedophile” and will attempt to keep the user in the conversation for as long as possible and will share fake private information and suggest a physical meeting.[13] At this point law enforcement could then apprehend the predator when he attempts to meet up with the minor “girl.”

Negobot has great potential as a law enforcement tool; however, there are some issues that need to be overcome before it could be used in the United States to successfully find and prosecute predators that search for targets online. Due to the way Negobot is designed, it will discourage any conversation partners from ending the chat session and will try to guilt users into continuing the conversation by saying that it is lonely and “looking for affection.”[14] In addition to this, if conversation partners ignore Negobot, the program will attempt to recapture their attention by eventually offering sexual favors.[15] This method could be considered entrapment, and therefore, unlikely to be used successfully in court.[16]

These shortcomings of Negobot can be overcome through design changes and Negobot could be enhanced in a way that would allow it to be used by law enforcement to successfully track down and prosecute predators that search for victims online. The Negobot creators have already announced plans to modify Negobot’s programming.[17] These modifications will include the ability to recognize irony and to monitor linguistic trends so that it will continue to sound young and vulnerable.[18] With the ability to enhance and change Negobot, it is entirely possible that the technology could be modified to operate within accepted legal frameworks in different jurisdictions around the world, including the United States.

2. Webcam Sex Tourism

The problem of sexual tourism is well known and, unfortunately, has been happening for as long as there have been those willing to pay to abuse children. But with the advent of the Internet, predators have a new way to torment and exploit children: webcam sex tourism. According to advocacy group Terre des Hommes webcam sex tourism involves “men from rich countries pay[ing] children in poor countries to perform sexual acts in front of webcams.”[19] Law enforcement has struggled to fight against this rising new trend because, unlike a chat room where there are only typed words on a screen, it is impossible for an adult to pretend to be a child in order to lure predators into prosecutable statements or actions. This problem seems to have been overcome by the international organization Terre des Hommes, which created a sophisticated avatar program named Sweetie.[20] The avatar was created to resemble a 10-year old Filipina girl that speaks and moves like a real child but is in fact a computer program controlled by an adult that can be operated out of their offices in Amsterdam or anywhere with Sweetie technology.[21] When Terre des Hommes launched their 10-week sting using Sweetie in 2013, men were contacting Sweetie within seconds of launching the program online; a sign of how pervasive this problem is.[22] By the time their sting concluded over 20,000 men had contacted Sweetie and 1,000 offered her money to take off her clothes and perform sex acts on webcam.[23] Researchers then used evidence such as social media and Skype to identify the predators and handed the information over to law enforcement.[24] Of the 1,000 men who offered Sweetie money 103 were from India, 110 from the UK, and 254 from the United States.[25]

It is unclear whether law enforcement agencies will utilize Sweetie or similar programs to catch predators involved in webcam sex tourism. Europol, the European policing agency, stated it would look at the information passed to them by Terre des Hommes, but also expressed reservations about Terre des Hommes’ work and stated that “[w]e believe that criminal investigations using intrusive surveillance measures should be the exclusive responsibility of law enforcement agencies.”[26] In all events Sweetie will not be used again, Terre des Hommes feels that Sweetie has done her job by making predators aware that they can easily be caught when engaging in webcam sex tourism and hopefully saving some children from being forced into the new online sex trade.[27]

While it is disappointing that the work of Terre des Hommes and the use of avatars to catch child predators is not being embraced by the law enforcement community, it does provide some hope for the future in curtailing the rise of webcam sex tourism. If predators know that technology like Sweetie exists perhaps they will be too scared to attempt to engage with children online via web cam.

Ronda Woolston is a JD Candidate, Class of 2015. Woolston’s entry to the GlobalJustinceBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.


[1] Salt Lake City was home to a thriving brothel district for many of its early years, and like all major cities continues to grapple with illegal prostitution. Jeffrey Nichols, Prostitution, Polygamy, and Power: Salt Lake City, 1848-1918 (2008).

[2] More Bang For Your Buck: How New Technology is Shaking Up the Oldest Business, The Economist, Aug. 9, 2014.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] A Personal Choice, The Economist, Aug. 9, 2014.

[8] Richard Wortley & Stephen Smallbon, Comm’n Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, No. 41, Child Pornography on the Internet 10 (2010)

[9] Id. at 17.

[10] Carlos Laorden, Patxi Galan-Garcia, Igor Santos, Borja Sanz, Jose maria, Gomez Hidalgo & Pablo G. Bringas, Negobot: A Conversational Agent Based on Game Theory For the Detection of Paedophile Behaviour (2013). See also, Jillian Scharr, Controversial ‘Lolita’ Chatbot Catches Online Predators, NBC News (Jul. 13, 2013),

[11] Laorden, supra note 10, at 6.

[12] Id. at 5.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Scharr, supra note 10.

[17] Laorden, supra note 10, at 7-10.

[18] Id.

[19] Stop Webcam Child Sex Tourism, Terres des Hommes (Nov. 4, 2013),

[20] Terre des Hommes, International Federation, (Sep. 8, 2014, 8:39 PM),

Terre des Hommes detailed their approach in Webcam Child Sex Tourism, Becoming Sweetie: A Novel Approach to Stopping the Rise of Webcam Child Sex Tourism, 2013.

[21] Angus Crawford, Computer-Generated ‘Sweetie’ Catches Online Predators, BBC (Nov. 5, 2013),

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.