Last week, The Verge reported that an Australian man was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison following a sting operation conducted by a Dutch charity using a digital avatar purporting to be a 10-year-old Filipina girl. The purpose of the operation was to combat webcam sex tourism, and the charity reported that the 10-week operation resulted in more than 20,000 users approaching the avatar, which they called “Sweetie.”
The case raises a number of legal and ethical issues. It appears from a BBC report that Sweetie was operated by live human adults. However, one can imagine that in the not-so-distant future such an operation could be fully automated. This raises questions about whether, or under what circumstances, a person could be convicted of a sex crime against a minor for an interaction with a computer program. Additionally, police agencies including Interpol and Europol have expressed reservations about sting operations conducted by non-law enforcement entities.
But arguably the biggest take-away is that online activity is rarely truly anonymous. The charity reports that it identified hundreds of men who offered Sweetie money to take her clothes off in front of the camera. While it remains to be seen how many of these men are prosecuted, it is worth remembering that online activity is rarely completely anonymous, and the safest plan is not to do anything online that you wouldn’t do in person.