Filipino Slavery in the Digital Age: Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Cybercrime

“Whether one’s skin be black or white, all people are equal; it may be that each is superior in knowledge, wealth, beauty but there is no superiority in human dignity.” – Emilio Jacinto

“…patriotism will always be a virtue among oppressed peoples, because it will at all times mean love of justice, of liberty, of personal dignity.” – Jose Rizal

There is something faintly disingenuous about the latest line of thinking, pushed by elected and appointed government officials, concerning cybercrime and human trafficking. Ever since news broke internationally about the absolutely abhorrent practice of child prostitution and abuse via the internet, local pundits and officials have attempted to recast the issue of human trafficking as one of cybercrime; overtly linking the issue to the current Supreme Court TRO on the implementation of the flawed Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (See “Note on Critiques of the Cybercrime Prevention Act” at the end of this essay). Recently, Senator Grace Poe, a staunch supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, came out in support of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and exhorted the Supreme Court to lift their temporary retraining order:

““We passed it in 2012, but’s now it’s pending before the court because of the libel provision. That’s understandable, but now we really need it because cyberpornography is becoming widespread,” she said.” – Philippine Daily Inquirer: “Poe: Child porn underscores importance of cybercrime law” 

Without going to much into detail, the Cybercrime Prevention Act is a law that is fundamentally flawed through its restriction of basic essential human rights, while placing certain unchecked powers in the hands of government. There is little doubt the government needs new tools to survive in a changing world; which bills like the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom attempt to address without the infirmities inherent in the Cybercrime Prevention Act.

With regards to the current form of discourse (as framed by Senator Poe and others), the conflation of human trafficking and child pornography (or cyber-pornography) is a dangerous and disingenuous one. The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 has little actual bearing on the issue of child prostitution and human trafficking in the Philippines, instead it supposedly combats the modes of dissemination, and backtracks prosecution from there. Yet, the focus on the method of dissemination obscures what is really at the heart of the problem: A decades long inability to combat child prostitution and human trafficking. We have turned our brethren into commodities, salable to the highest, or readiest, bidder. Patriotism as love of neighbor, and country as upholding liberty and inherent human dignity, is in short supply. For years, we have failed to protect Filipinos and create an inclusive environment, anchored on the protection of human rights, that allows them to develop and grow. This is a symptom of that problem.

The Perils of Short-Term Thinking and the Specter of Filipino Slavery

The disingenuousness of the current discourse on child prostitution and cybercrime is found in the intellectually bankrupt linking of the two via the TRO on the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Senior Superintendent Gilbert Sosa exemplified this way of thinking, when he said:

““The debate on the Cybercrime Law focuses on the substantial part of it. But the police needs the procedural aspect of the law so that we can run after these pedophiles,”

Let’s be frank, the Cybercrime law is an expedient method for potentially shutting down (and that is up for serious debate, based on the information technology capabilities our government has demonstrated so far) the current, favored method for disseminating pornography to the Western world (don’t forget, the primary market for pornography, whether ‘vanilla’ or reprehensible is the West). Point of fact, we have a number of existing laws that can be utilized to combat and prosecute human trafficking and child pornography, regardless of the method used to transmit the material: the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 (RA 9775), the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2009 (RA 9995), and the Anti Trafficking in Persons Act, (RA 9208, as amended by RA 10364). All of these, not to mention the usual laws we have on the books regarding pornography, prostitution, and human trafficking, are all useful and necessary in rooting out human trafficking – though also in dire need of expansion and strengthening. The linking of the current situation with Cybercrime Prevention Act smells of an implicit attempt to whitewash long-standing failures on the part of government and police forces to truly combat and root out human trafficking throughout the archipelago. Child prostitution and human trafficking are not new problems, only the use of the internet to convey it.

In 1989, the New York Times ran an article called “In a Philippine Town, Child Prostitution, Despite Protests, Is a Way of Life”:

“Drive into this green and quiet town 40 miles southeast of Manila and groups of men will run alongside your car, banging on the windows, offering a choice of the local attractions: A boat ride to the scenic waterfall or a child prostitute.

Visit the professional historian who lives here, Sonia M. Zaide, and she will spread on her table hundreds of pictures of local boys performing sexual acts with foreign men, as well as neatly typed index cards with the names and detailed records of the boys and their customers.

Talk with the Mayor, Augusto Kamatoy, or with the parents of the children, and they will describe the economic benefits of the local trade in boys and the generosity of the foreigners who have paid for their young lovers’ schooling, built a basketball court and funded civic projects.”

The story continues:

“Prostitution, fueled by poverty, is common in the Philippines, particularly in the towns outside the two major American military bases.

Child prostitution is also widespread, with estimates of 9,000 or more children involved in Manila alone.

Women are an export commodity for the Philippines, where thousands of Filipinas take jobs as servants, workers in the health service industry and entertainers in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The entertainment industry often involves prostitution.”

That is 1989, and it had nothing to do with the internet. The depressing, cold hard truth is, because of years of rampant corruption and poorly planned out development, for some one of the only commodities their have to leverage is their bodies, or those of their children and family members. We can point to the West as the culprits, after all, in the case of child trafficking, it’s their ‘deviants’ who come to our shores, who order these videos, who lust after our children and find the means to get a hold of them virtually or physically, but that belies the fact that we have known about the human trafficking and child prostitution problem in this country and have done little to truly combat it in years past.

Quick Fixes and the Loss of Innocence

“It is also important to say something about the very structure of trafficking as a socio-economic activity. As many others have remarked, traffickers never work in isolation, but always in concert with others — from illegal recruiters to corrupt police, to an entire panoply of service providers in the finance, communications and transportation industries. Trafficking, in this sense, is a networked phenomenon: its operations are de-centralized, with shifting locations and shadowy agents. It works as much on the level of violent coercion as on artful dissimulation, which creates complicated relations between perpetrators, victims and the latter’s families, making it difficult to detect — much less prosecute — human traffickers.” – Lila Ramos Shahani

The fixation on Cybercrime Prevention as a panacea for prostitution (cyber or otherwise) is erroneous. It is not the internet that empowers this sort of activity; it is the nature of social development in this country, it is the ready access to flesh and the ability to hide with impunity these nefarious activities. It is the decades long inability of local and national government to combat generational poverty, in some cases driven greedy and self-serving politicians who undermine their localities and homes to line their own pockets, that drives the proliferation of this sordid business in human flesh. And yes, it also falls on the parents who sell their children into the flesh trade. But then again, what is it like to feel powerless to change your economic and social fate? What is it like to grow up and raise children in an environment that seems to tacitly approve prostituting children and adults by the very lack of coordinated attempts to end the trade? There are cultural and economic issues at play here as well, ones that create a sense that human beings are commodities, children are labor, and the value of a human being is only seen in economic terms.

The sad fact is the Philippines has long been known as one of the human trafficking capitals of the world. There are a number of civil society organizations that have been trying to both combat the practice and save those who are forcibly coerced over the years. But, for years the gains have been slow and, in some cases, have come up against resistance from local and even national officials. If you ask why, the answer will depress. Simply: Because some politicians and government officials (police officers included), whether overtly or tangentially, have benefited from the sex trade. Much like the drug trade, cuts are given out, protection money handed over, and in some instances, the trade is even overseen and approved by elected officials. Witness the small town that the New York Times reported on in 1989.

There is little doubt that we are in dire need of a rejiggering of our policy framework that empowers the investigative and prosecutorial arms of the government; much the same as we are in dire need of an infusion of capital (financial, physical, and knowledge) into our police and judiciary to provide them with the necessary tools to combat crime and human trafficking throughout the country. While we are on it, we are still struggling to develop pathways towards truly inclusive growth that undermines poverty in the Philippines; as poverty declines so too will the pool of the willing. However, the unwilling? The kidnapped and forcibly trafficked? That goes straight to rule of law and the ability of our police and justice system to investigate, arrest, and successfully prosecute modern day slave traders. Cracking down on the methods of dissemination through a flawed law like the Cybercrime Prevention Act rudimentarily appears to treat the symptoms. But it is nothing more than a palliative given under the pretense of doing something masterful to crackdown on the flesh trade. It does nothing to counter-act, to address, the underlying problems that give rise to this execrable activity within our own borders.

Cutting out the Rot

Lila Ramos Shahani provides an insightful and harrowing look into the nature of human trafficking in the Philippines in her presentation, Situating Human Trafficking in the Philippines: Global, National and Personal Contexts. Of note, is her construct of the multi-faceted nature of Philippine socio-cultural and economic context that gives rise to human trafficking:

“It is not surprising that most trafficking victims are poor, lacking in education, and desperate for employment opportunities elsewhere. Most are victimized by illegal recruiters and sent to countries banned to Filipino workers. Tragically, all remain unprotected by an entire social continuum — parents, friends, schoolteachers, immigration officials, and airport/port authorities — that should never have turned a blind eye on them in the first place. The system, at some level, had irrevocably let them down. To understand this chronic failure, it is necessary to get a sense of the structural forces underlying human trafficking.

Poverty, unemployment and underemployment have no doubt played a significant role. The bleak prospects for gainful and creative employment have made people vulnerable to the lure of illegal recruiters offering better prospects abroad. Additionally, poverty brought on by civil war, as we see in parts of rural and southern Philippines — where polygamy is common — create rich breeding grounds for trafficking, leading to sexual and labor exploitation. Already violently displaced, refugees of civil war tend to look upon forced migration as an improvement upon their present situation.

In the Philippines, civil strife and massive unemployment on a national scale led the Marcos dictatorship to adopt a policy of encouraging overseas migration throughout the 1970s. Given the urgent need for skilled and unskilled workers in the oil-rich Middle East, the booming economies of East Asia, and the aging populations of Western Europe, North America and, lately, Israel, huge markets opened up for Filipino labor.”

The implied connection she draws between our export labor policies and human trafficking should give us all pause. In the talk, Shahani does provide some hope that the current administration understands the serious nature of human trafficking and is working to combat it through social, legal, and economic development means.

Yet, as Shahani rightly says in her presentation, we cannot look away from the overwhelming need to strengthen our government’s policies and responses to a changing world, both with regards to upholding and protecting human rights, and counteracting human trafficking and cybercrime. Laws like the Cybercrime Prevention Act, by dint of its various infirmities and myopic view, do little to accomplish this. Laws like that trade the protection of intrinsic human rights for the pitiful appearance of combating cybercrime and human trafficking in the Philippines. Laws, policies, and reforms that are carefully calibrated to meet the exigencies of the modern world (like the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom with regards to the internet) however, do in their own way empower the Philippine government to change and stay current with the modern world. That being said, no single law truly gets to the heart of combating human trafficking, prostitution, and child prostitution in this country. Those solutions will not be found in fixating on means of distribution; it will be found combating the various social, cultural, legal, and judicial infirmities that have severely hindered any attempts to root out human trafficking in the Philippines.

“The government’s strategic stance on curbing human trafficking has resulted in considerable improvement in the trafficking situation throughout the country. Cases are now being strictly monitored, while the response to victims and their families has improved and become more effective. Incidents of human trafficking have decreased, thanks to a sustained campaign to disseminate information about the problem. The prosecution of trafficking criminals continues, as courts are encouraged to take action.

While the attempts of the Aquino administration to address the problems of international trafficking have been laudable, it has yet to carry out more concrete steps to eliminate the deeply entrenched patterns of domestic trafficking: for one thing, victim identification skills among government personnel could be strengthened. Such problems, as I have indicated above, are far more politically delicate and explosive to deal with than those of international trafficking, and are often more difficult to track since they don’t require the same amount of paperwork.” – Lila Ramos Shahani

The last few years have shown an uptick in coordinated government attempts to end the practice; exemplified in our improvement in combating human trafficking according to watchdogs and well-presented by experts like Shahani. But as they have rightly pointed out, we have been so graphically shown, it is not near enough. Then again, maybe it should never be enough. When it comes to upholding and protecting human rights, to ensuring that there is an environment conducive to inclusive growth, government and civil society can never rest on its laurels. Yes, combating human trafficking is a global issue, one that requires multilateral coordinated efforts to truly end. But, that does not absolve the Philippines from its duties to protect the human rights of its citizens, and most especially its children.

Human trafficking is modern day slavery, it is the worst fears of a civilized people brought to light: The dehumanizing of our brothers and sisters, the commodification of a people. In any iteration it is a blight on the soul of a people and nation, one that is not easily removed. But, when the victims are innocent children, children given over to be abused, degraded, and treated like sex toys for amusement because of the powerlessness of a country to protect them, the stench of these acts linger, it festers and erodes the fabric of a society, unless something is done we face, not only the irrevocable stain of these acts, but the very loss of our collective soul.

The overwhelmingly sad part is these activities are not isolated to locale in the Philippines. It is not the work of one or two people, but on-going throughout our entire country. This is the face of corruption; this is the loss of our collective innocence. And yes something must be done, the correct things are being done. But also more of the right things must be done; these actions must be something more than palliative, more than PR gestures (like connecting the Cybercrime Prevention Act with child prostitution) designed to placate an angry foreign and domestic audience. Needs demand the creation of lasting change for the better. This is about combating poverty and corruption, about ending impunity and instituting the rule of law; it is about protecting our citizens and allowing them to flourish; it is about inculcating all those things – human dignity, liberty, opportunity, security, and ‘happiness’ – that are inherent in creating an inclusive society, one founded on the protection of human rights and the opportunity for individual and collective growth and development. Unlocking the solutions to these problems are not simple, they are not easy, and they will take time.

It behooves our government and its officials to stop looking for quick and easy fixes and to continue the long hard work of creating a legal and judicial environment that aggressively goes after child and human trafficking. Waiting for the ‘evidence’ of malfeasance to appear on the internet, and working backwards, does not accomplish this at all. Yes, combating the distribution side is important and must be addressed properly, but that will not end the modern day slave trade in the Philippines. But working to combat end trafficking before the victims are abused does. That must be our collective focus in this moment: Ending the practice before it has a chance to begin.


Note on critiques of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012:

Quick discussions of the failures of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 can be found herehere, and here. A group of young advocates has presented a ‘crowdsourced’ alternative to the Cybercrime Act called the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom, which has the support of a number of elected officials and civil society organizations.

At the heart of the critique of the Cybercrime Prevention Act is the sheer amount of unilateral power it places in the hands of the government when it comes to ‘policing’ the internet. While the overarching goal is applaudable, no one will argue that against the Philippines needing new mechanisms for policing the internet, it veers to far towards infringing on the inherent rights of Filipinos, specifically those of freedom of speech. In their Editorial (A blow against Free Speech) on September 20, 2012, the Philippine Daily Inquirer rightly pointed out:

“The new Cybercrime Prevention Act, signed into law by President Aquino on Sept. 12, takes the dangerously outmoded provisions on libel in the Revised Penal Code—and dumps them online. Without any legislative debate, without any public hearing, indeed with hardly anyone looking, these libel provisions have been unthinkingly extended to all online content. While the extension itself is only a small part of the new law, it now threatens every citizen who has access to a computer device with unconscionable restrictions on our hard-earned right to free speech.”

Additional Resources on Human Trafficking not linked in body of essay: A Web Resource for Combating Human Trafficking:

GMA Network: Quick Facts on Human Trafficking in the Philippines:

BBC: “Computer Generated ‘Sweetie’ catches online predators”

PREDA Foundation:


Editor’s note: Republished with permission from the author. This entry originally appeared on his blog: here.


Nik writes primarily about Philippine culture and history. His twitter account is @iwriteasiwrite and his primary blog can be found at