BANGKOK , Nov 11 (IPS) - A major U.N. conference that aims to bridge the gap in information technology between the world's affluent and poorest societies is in danger of inadvertently catering to the needs and fantasies of the world's paedophiles.
For leading child rights activists it is a threat that cannot be taken lightly, in the wake of growing evidence of the lengths paedophiles have gone to in exploiting cyberspace to prey on children in societies where the Internet and information and communication technology (ICT) are easily accessible.
At issue is a reluctance on the part of the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to embrace concrete language that calls on the ICT industry and other ICT decision-makers to generate safeguards to protect children from abuse.
''This is unacceptable. You cannot promote development and the equitable access of ICT yet have a benign neglect of children's rights,'' says Paulo Pinheiro, the independent expert appointed by the U.N. secretary-general to study violence against children.
''The conference cannot simply focus on the positive elements like the expansion of people connected to cyberspace because the expansion brings very negative elements too,'' he argued during an interview. ''We cannot pretend that this negative elements are not present.''
''I hope the declaration of the WSIS will reflect this language,'' he added, referring to the final document, or 'Plan of Action,' expected to emerge at the end of the WSIS, being held in Tunis, Nov. 16-18.
In 2002, the U.N. General Assembly asked the International Telecommunication Union to lay the groundwork for a conference to find solutions to the digital divide between the developed and the developing world. A primary objective of the planned global Information Society due to grow out of the conference in Tunisia is to ensure universal and equitable access to information and knowledge through the ICT sector.
Pinheiro's concerns are being backed by a leading global child rights lobby, the Bangkok-based End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT).
Fragmented industry action to develop safeguards in ICT is ''exposing children around the world to increasingly serious violence through the Internet and other cyberspace technologies,'' declared an ECPAT report released here Friday.
In addition to the exchange of child pornography, the Internet has enabled adults who prey on children to indulge in ''live'' online sexual abuse for a fee, online sexual solicitation, cyberstalking and bullying and the use of cyberspace to ''network for child sex tourism and trafficking,'' states the 91-page report.
''By 2000, police across several countries were encountering individuals who had collected hundreds of thousands of images of children being sexually abused,'' reveals 'Violence Against Children in Cyberspace'. ''Now, cyberspace is host to more than one million images of tens of thousands of children subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation.''
It is, furthermore, a lucrative trade, since the ECPAT study estimates that the production and distribution of abusive images of children runs into billions of dollars. ''Estimates of annual business volume range widely from three billion U.S. dollars to 20 billion U.S. dollars.''
And it is a pattern that could only worsen, given the latest developments in technology that makes it easier for abusers to exploit. The report singled out innovations such as phone-cams, global positioning system technology and third-generation technology.
What makes children even more vulnerable is the ease with which they keep embracing the development in ICT and being among its leading users. ''Children and young people are in the vanguard of the almost one billion people who log into cyberspace, and they will account for a significant proportion of expansion in useage of new ICTs in coming years,'' according to the report.
Yet despite such growth in ICT and the dangers it has been creating to children, countries have been slow to respond with concrete measures, either through laws or by strengthening national agencies like the police to go after those who violate children's rights through the Internet.
''Police departments do not have the technology to deal with this crime (of abusing children in cyberspace) in most countries,'' Carmen Madrinan, ECPAT's executive director, told the media on Friday. ''We are still lacking forensic efforts and tools to track crime in cyberspace.''
While laws to protect children from such abuse are absent in most countries, even in the few countries that have implemented some measures the legislation is weak, she said. ''Child protection should be at the core of ICT development to make it safe for children.''
And the forthcoming WSIS offers a testing ground to measure the industry's and governments' commitment to protecting children from current and future predators, says Deborah Muir, author of the report. ''Child protection measures must be implemented within the structures of the new information society.''
''The safeguards must be considered right at the R and D (research and development) stage,'' she said in an IPS interview. ''And when they (ICT sector) does its consumer surveys of how a certain technology will be picked up by the child as a consumer, we are also calling for complementary measures that address how the technology may be used in a way that would harm children.'' (END/2005)