IT Matters

Pedophiles and the Internet

This article explores the exploitation of the Internet by pedophiles.


Whilst the Internet and other modern day telecommunication devices such as the SMS and MMS have facilitated our ease in dealing with one another at both business and governmental levels, it has also opened up new avenues for adult criminals to prey on our children in the confines of our homes, to befriend them for sexual purposes under a cloak of anonymity.

This article seeks to explore various issues arising from pedophilia and through usage of computers, including the definition of pedophile, how they exploit the Internet to shop for victims, some UK initiatives that may be helpful and why the solution to the problem is a multilateral one involving all concerned parties.

Definition of a Pedophile

A pedophile is someone who is exclusively or to a significant degree sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. This definition using legalese tends to give some respectability to the most vile of criminals. In ordinary parlance, a pedophile, especially one convicted of sexual crimes, is a monster who defiles the innocent and renders them scarred emotionally for life. Where the attraction extends to children post puberty, ie young adolescents, the French Canadian experts distinguish it as ‘hebephile’. This term is not known in the English language.

Keith F Durkin, in ‘Misuse of the Internet by Pedophiles: Implication for Law Enforcement and Probation Practice’ (1997) 61 Fed Probation 14, defines a ‘cyber-pedophile’ as a ‘person with the sexual orientation or preference to like children on the Internet’, whereas the term ‘child molester’ refers to a person who actually engages in the behaviour.

Pedophilia is not a mental illness nor is it a physical sickness but is characterised to be a ‘disorder of sexual preference’, according to The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems published by the World Health Organisation. One cannot be tried in a court of law for an attraction or orientation (which remains at the level of thought), but only for illegal acts.

At first blush, one would have thought that pedophilia is such a morally depraved state of mind that it is almost impossible to justify such grotesque and abhorrent fantasy nor for anyone to argue for sexual privacy rights in these domains. Yet, in Sexual Privacy for Pedophiles and Children (found at http://www.ipce.info/library_3/files/tomoc/sexual_privacy.htm), Tom O’Caroll challenged conventional thoughts on this area in the paper presented to the Symposium on Sexual Privacy at the annual academy meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research in Paris, June 2000.

The paper cited among other things in justification, the right to freedom of possession with regard to child pornography, privacy rights for both children and the pedophile, consensual behaviour, repression of children’s sexuality, that some children are not all that innocent and the gradual breaking of iron taboos on sexuality involving children.

Scale of the Problem

Be that as it may, focus on pedophiles has been amplified again recently in the UK following a massive operation (known as Operation Ore) to clamp down on child pornographic websites by US authorities which revealed among others, about 7,300 subscribers to such sites including a well known rock star, lawyers, teachers, doctors, care workers and even two British politicians who were former Labour Ministers.

The Guardian, in their online website on 13 January 2003, also reported that apparently more than 1,300 people have been detained or arrested by Scotland Yard. There is no information though on whether any local subscribers here in Singapore were involved.

The point here is, it is a growing ‘affliction’ of the mind, not confined necessarily only to the lower echelons of society, and if the UK statistics are anything to go by, it is a matter that merits serious concern by both the authorities, parents, schools and the education system.

Modus Operandi

Before the advent of the Internet and other modern telecommunications, the modus operandi of a practising pedophile was to target schools and other institutions that deal with children, such as child care nurseries and the boys scout movement or places where young children hang out, such as shopping malls and amusement arcades.

Now, with the ease with which users of the Internet can access chat rooms and chatting (with both text and voice chat) under the cloak of anonymity and using assumed and false identities, there is very little risk (especially for the Internet savvy pedophile) to befriend children, compared to public places where they run the risk of being detained by undercover or plainclothes police officers.

In Singapore, there have been few cases reported where pedophiles have successfully used Internet chat rooms to gain access to young children at home and befriend them for the purpose of targeting them for sexual gratification. In the UK, however, the situation is very different.

According to the BBC website online news report dated 16 August 2002, over the last two years, at least 12 children have been sexually assaulted by people who first contacted them via the Internet.

Position in Singapore

Even those cases in Singapore where the perpetrators had used the Internet chat rooms to communicate with their victims and where under-aged girls were involved, the accused persons were not known to be pedophiles.

For example, the case of Tay Kim Kuan v Public Prosecutor [2001] 3 SLR 567 which involved a 13-year-old girl, where the accused befriended the under-aged victim through Internet chat relay in the chat room known as ‘Singapore 30+’. Tay was a 45-year-old married man, a salaried director of a construction costs consultancy company, who pleaded guilty to the charge, surprisingly made under s 140(1) of the Women’s Charter which carried a more lenient sentence compared to the rape provisions of the Penal Code. But even in that case, there were no allegations of pedophilia.

Likewise in the case of Public Prosecutor v Raymond Pok [2003] SGHC 18 where the accused person had posted a message in an Internet chat room asking any girl to pose as his temporary girlfriend for a few hours and engage in petting in return for money. No allegation of pedophilia was made. The victims, however, were both 14 years old. They had responded to the message out of curiosity and were eventually violated. Charges were made under the lighter provisions of the Women’s Charter in the case of one of the girls and also the more severe rape provisions of the Penal Code (at s 376(1)) in the case of the other. In this case, the accused had also communicated his threats to the victims using SMS (short message service).

Apart from Internet chat rooms, accused persons have also found their victims through telephone chat lines as in the case of Lit Wai Choy Derek v Public Prosecutor (MA No 180 of 2001; DAC No 869-871 of 2001) where the victim, a 13-year-old girl, used a ‘Phone Chat’ available in ‘8 Days’ a local magazine. A face to face meeting took place within the month when contact was first made.

Contact could also be made through Internet relay chat, ie ICQ, which enables participants to contact fellow users on a one to one basis as long as their ICQ addresses are disclosed on the web directory even if parties have never communicated before in any chat rooms. This was how the accused person in Tay We-Jin v Public Prosecutor (MA No 191 of 2001; DAC No 5206 of 2001) first made contact with the victim. That was, however, a case involving criminal intimidation, though what led to the intimidation was the fact that the victim, a 15-year-old, refused his sexual advances.

For those cases that involved pedophiles, the accused persons did not use the Internet chat rooms to befriend the victims concerned.

In a recent case reported in the Straits Times on 11 March 2003, Public Prosecutor v Philip Lim Beng Cheok, the accused gave free tuition and played the role of mentor to all his victims. In another case, a Court of Appeal decision, Lim Hock Hin Kelvin v Public Prosecutor [1998] 1 SLR 801, which established the sentencing principles for pedophiles, the accused, a chronic pedophile, had befriended the victims at amusement centres, also becoming their guardian, friend and gave free tuition as well. In both cases, the parents gave their blessings to the mentor relationships.

In the case of the High Court decision in Public Prosecutor v Tan Ah Kit (CC No 67 of 2000) which adopted the sentencing principles enunciated in Lim Hock Hin Kelvin v Public Prosecutor [1998] 1 SLR 801, the accused person, who appeared in person and who pleaded guilty to the charges, had befriended the victims in a games arcade at the North Point Shopping Centre.

Whatever the modus operandi, Internet chat rooms are slowly becoming a convenient place where would be perpetrators can shop for potential victims by assessing their responses and determining whether they are gullible victims. And recognising that this trend is in fact on the rise and should be nipped in the bud, the Honorable Chief Justice had this to say in Tay Kim Kuan at p 573:

This was but one of an alarming number of recent cases to involve men who meet young girls over the Internet and thereafter have sexual intercourse with them. While I have no doubt that the Internet is and has been an efficient medium of communication and its uses and functionalities highly contributory to the progress and development of the new economy, I also had to be mindful of the fact that it is a medium that is easily accessible and is in fact frequently accessed by persons of all ages, particularly in an information-technology savvy nation like Singapore.

As such, it is not surprising that it was only a matter of time before abuse of the web became rampant, and the law has to develop in such a way as to keep such abuse in check. While parents have the primary responsibility of educating and warning their children of the inherent dangers posed by the Internet, the law too has an accompanying duty to ensure that our children and young persons are allowed to exploit the wonders of modern technology with as little risk as possible to the safety and security of both their minds and bodies.

The easy availability of the Internet and its services to the ordinary man and child in the street on the one hand and the emboldening security that it provides to the unscrupulous who are allowed to hide their true identities and remain faceless whilst preying on the young, gullible and immature on the other, both led me to the conclusion that a deterrent sentence was warranted in the present case. Indeed I felt it my duty to arrest the rising trend of such Internet sex cases which, if they were not eradicated early, would result in the utter disintegration of the moral fabric of our yet conservative society.

Position in the UK

As the pedophile problem is bigger in the UK, the Conservative Party proposed six measures to strengthen the laws on pedophiles. This came in the wake of the horrific disappearances of two ten-year-old Cambridgeshire school girls whom authorities initially suspected were lured away by someone they had befriended on the net.

These measures include the introduction of a new criminal offence known as ‘Internet grooming’ and a new civil injunction to stop a course of conduct by an adult towards a child for an illegal or harmful sexual purpose.

Basically, this law, if it comes into effect, will make it a criminal offence to make contact with a child with the intent to commit sexual offences. This will make illegal the act of grooming by pedophiles that is designed to convince vulnerable children that sexual relations with adults are acceptable.

The provisions relating to grooming laws are now part of a comprehensive Sexual Offences Bill that was introduced on 28 January 2003 in the House of Lords for its 2002–2003 debates.

Essentially, the provisions proposed, as stated in s 17(1) of the Bill, provide that four key components must be satisfied for the grooming offences to be committed.

Firstly, the accused person (defined to be over 18) must intentionally meet or travel with the intention of meeting a person (victim) or having met or communicated with him on at least two earlier occasions. Such communications would include Internet chat rooms and all other forms of telecommunication devices. But the laws extend beyond mere Internet communications and include ‘contacts through family’.

Secondly, the accused intends to do anything in respect of the victim, during or after the meeting and in any part of the world, which if committed would involve the commission of a prescribed offence. Such intention can be gathered from among others the content of the chat which may have taken place between the accused person and the victim. It can also be implied from, for example, obscene attachments being sent by e-mail to the victim and also the watching of pornographic films together. In other words, there is really no need for the victims to be grossly violated before the culprits are brought to court. This is because prevention is certainly better than cure as far as pedophilic crimes are concerned.

The third and fourth requirements under the proposed bill are that the victim be under 16 and the accused does not reasonably believe him to be over 16. The age of consent may be country specific and may be modified according to its socio and cultural norms.

The controversy that is likely to arise in the proving of intention under such grooming laws is the likely usage of the defence of fantasy, which has already been successfully deployed in the US. See Donald S Yamagami, ‘Prosecuting Cyber-Pedophiles: How can intent be shown in a virtual world in light of the fantasy defense’ 41 Santa Clara L Rev 547.

What this argument seeks to do is to defeat the criminal intent by showing that the entire episode or transaction leading to, but short of, the act of actual sexual activity was entirely a fantasy, a figment of one’s imagination or mere play acting.

In other words, according to the learned author (at p 8), ‘the people using the Internet do not always believe the identities of those with whom they are communicating’. This ‘disbelief is premised on the idea that the Internet and the anonymity it allows, encourages people to change their identities or role play in order to socialize on the Internet’. So, what appears to be the issue here is really trying to draw a distinction between those who merely role-play or those that engage in mere innocent fantasies and those who act on them. The implicit assumption here is that those who fantasise about any acts of violence or sexual crimes will not necessarily act upon them.

Other measures proposed by the Conservative Party include increased sentences for failure to provide a key to encrypted child pornography. An unfortunate development of Internet software is the availability of cheap encryption software which police and security services have not been able to break. Even though it has already been introduced in the UK that it is a requirement for the key to be provided when requested, the recommendation is for the sentence to be enhanced for such failure to provide the key as if the anticipated evidence is revealed for the offence concerned. In other words, if suspected pedophiles refuse to hand over the computer codes to the police to decode the images, they should be treated as guilty.

The complex computer forensics and the evidential difficulty in prosecuting cyber pedophiles in cases where there is no confession and absence of paper evidence is recognised and dealt with in ‘Evidence in Internet Pedophilia Cases’ by Peter Sommer (CT LR 2002 8(7), 176–184). The author recognises that since computer forensics is in a perpetual state of instability, insistence on higher standards of testing methodology will put at risk existing police investigative techniques. This matter is further compounded by the fact that cyber pedophiles are also computer hobbyists ‘eager to use and exploit latest technology’. This observation is valid even in the context of Singapore. For example, the accused (not a case involving a pedophile though) in Public Prosecutor v Pok Raymond (supra) was an assistant engineer with a diploma in Electronics, Computer and Control Engineering from a local polytechnic.

Four other recommendations include the creation of a central sex offender’s register, the imposition of psychometric testing for those seeking employment with children in residential homes and boarding schools and the tracking of pedophiles released into the community by way of satellite monitoring. The public interest element definitely will have greater concern and priority than individual privacy concerns in this area.

Multilateral Approach

The way forward to deal with pedophiles and in the context of this article, cyber pedophiles, is really to use a multilateral approach, of which stringent laws with severe sentences are just one component.

The other equally important component or tool to protect young people from the clutches of such menace is public education. To that extent, the recent publicity blitz by the police informing the public, particularly young users of chat rooms, not to meet strangers from their encounters, are to be applauded.

Parents too have a strong role to play. However, they have to equip themselves technically so as to understand the working intricacies of the Internet before they are able to advise or guide their children on the dangers of the Internet. Of all these steps, it is incumbent upon parents to make sure that their children surf the Internet anonymously and not disclose information that may result in them being identified or to meet people they ‘speak’ to on the Internet.

Parents can also install certain filtering software that is able to block off pornographic contents when their children surf the Internet or if they were to receive pornographic materials in the e-mail. Companies or schools can also install software such as the BioObservation System using computer image analysis technology that can analyse computer images to identify pornographic or pedophile images on suspect computers and to alert the relevant authority when such offending images are received.

Other suggestions that have been made previously are the introduction of privacy informational laws which basically make it mandatory for private information of young users of the Internet to be banned from being asked in such chat room scenarios.

It has also been suggested (see The Guardian in an article entitled ‘Chat room danger prompts new safety code’ in their online website news on 6 January 2003) that virtual panic buttons should also be installed in such chat rooms so that when communication gets out of hand, the young and innocent are able to summon help. Prominent safety messages for child users should also be installed to protect young users from pedophiles.

There is also the controversial issue of whether the public has a right to know the whereabouts of convicted sexual offenders so that they can protect themselves and take necessary steps to do so if there is an offender living within their community.

In the final analysis, steps have to be intensified to make cyberspace a safer place for children to explore and learn and to improve the security zone of our homes, which really is our last place of refuge from the outside world. And in the words of the Honourable Chief Justice in Tay Kim Kuan’s case (supra), re-emphasised here, ‘if [the rising trend of the Internet sex cases] were not eradicated early, would result in the utter disintegration of the moral fabric of our yet conservative society’.


Looi Teck Kheong
Unilegal LLC
E-mail: tklooi@pacific.net.sg

*Views expressed are those of the writer.