Warning: This article contains references to online emotional abuse, alleged suicide, and bullying.
It was the most abusive environment for children yet uncovered in South Africa, but its hosts were protected by distance, technology and anonymity. This week, however, the Outoilet chat portal succumbed to a campaign initiated by Gadget publisher World Wide Worx. With the support of MTN and Vodacom, and of a major advertiser on Outoilet, the site was blocked, its financial lifeblood throttled, and it finally removed the abusive chat rooms. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK tells the tale.
When Outoilet was first brought to our attention a year ago, it was a mobile hub of bullying, abuse and humiliation for schoolchildren in the Western Cape. Confined largely to the Cape Flats, it was often described by teenagers as the best kept sex secret in the province.
Chat rooms had been set up for dozens of schools in disadvantaged areas, and the chats fell into two categories: requests for information about members of the opposite sex, with a view to hooking up: and scandalous gossip or vicious accusations about fellow learners. The gossip became so virulent, that it was blamed for destroying lives, literally and figuratively.
Then, during 2010, outoilet took an even more sinister turn: adults began soliciting children for sex on the site, offering airtime or money. They also offered to share pornography with schoolchildren, and offered money and airtime for pictures of the children unclothed. In some cases, children offered their services to adults.
At the same time, the chat craze spread to schools across the country, invading Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in particular.
It was these developments that brought Outoilet back into the spotlight, and World Wide Worx found itself being called on to comment on the trend in numerous media, including Eyewitness News, Rapport, Citizen and Drum. At the time, the consensus seemed to be that the only effective route that could be taken was via criminal proceedings: laying a charge with police, who would refer the matter to Interpol, who would refer the matter to the Russian authorities, who would be asked to investigate as well as close down the site. The Publications Control Board was also expected to initiate proceedings.
The breakthrough, for World Wide Worx, came with a suggestion e-mailed by Kris Jarzebowski, CEO of recruitment portal CareerJunction, that we use our influence to persuade Internet Service Providers to block the site. That was like a lightbulb going on above someone’s head: the vast majority of the activity on outoilet was conducted via cellphones, and it would only take the major cellular network operators blocking the site to pull its abuse teeth.
The suggestion came at the same time as a discussion taking place internally on how World Wide Worx could support the Lead South Africa initiative, launched by Primedia Broadcasting to encourage ‚ordinary South Africans who continually seek to do the right thing for themselves, for their families and for their country‚ . The Outoilet issue was a natural one to tackle in this context.
The World Wide Worx campaign was two-pronged: approach network operators and Internet service providers on the one hand: and, on the other hand, advertisers on the portal.
One of the key issues at stake was the illegality of the site, and the abuse of children it promoted, rather than more general issues of pornography and sex chat among adults. Service providers do not see themselves as moral watchdogs or censors when the material in question is not illegal. It had to be shown that this was not a censorship issue, but rather a matter of protecting children from direct abuse.
This was not difficult.
According to the constitution of the Republic of South Africa, learners have the right to a safe environment and the right to human dignity. The latter includes the right to be protected from bullying, sexual harassment, intimidation and victimisation. Any platform that encourages or allows behaviour that infringes rights to human dignity is therefore in violation of the South African constitution, and can result in both criminal and civil action.
But there was also clear criminal activity on the site.
According to Childline, taking pictures of persons under that age of 18 that are sexual and pornographic is illegal and, sending sexual pictures of someone of any age to a person under 18 years is also a criminal offence. Offers of such material to schoolchildren, including those in primary school, were common on Outoilet.
Following well-publicised allegations of a schoolyard rape at Jules High School in Johannesburg, and the apparent video-recording of the incident on a cellphone, Outoilet took centre stage. Most of the postings in the Jules High chat room were offers or requests for the video, which the police had already declared to be child pornography. Money and airtime was offered by dozens of people for a copy of the video.
Add to this the solicitation of children for sex and offers of money and airtime for other favours, and the extent of illegal and abusive activity on Outoilet was clear.
The scale of participation varied from school to school. Some had up to a hundred postings a week, some only a few dozen messages a month. In many cases, especially those involving solicitation and offers of pornography or sex, cellphone numbers were provided.
There was no argument from either MTN or Vodacom. Both were fully supportive of the initiative, from the CEO down. And yesterday, both networks confirmed they had officially blacklisted the site.
Equally important, though, was the immediate commitment we were given by one of the biggest advertisers on the site, a mobile dating service aimed at over-18s. It turned out that the ads were placed via a global advertising network. The dating service immediately instructed the network to remove their ads from the site.
On Monday morning, 23 November, The Citizen ran with a front-page banner headline: War on Outoilet‚ , with the sub-head, Bid to block network over child pornography. The lead story in the newspaper reported our campaign to block the site.
Within two hours of the newspaper hitting the streets, the schools chat rooms had been removed from Outoilet (they had still been up and running the previous night, despite a report in City Press that the site had removed the schools chat rooms on the Friday afternoon).
It was clear that the combination of headline publicity and financial loss had done what police proceedings could not.
Vodacom and MTN advised us yesterday, almost simultaneously, that they had blacklisted the site.
MTN issued a formal statement:
Currently, MTN is using a service that prevents access on its network to Web sites that contain images of the sexual abuse of children. Launched in December 2008, the service supports the aims of the Mobile Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse Content of which MTN is a member.
The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) provides MTN with a list that gets updated twice daily of Web sites identified as containing images of child sexual abuse. In addition to this service that helps protect MTN customers from inadvertent exposure to such content and minimise the perpetuation of the abuse of the child victims, MTN also has a Parental Control service. This enables MTN customers to choose and manage adult content and instant messaging activities that can be received on the mobile phones of their children, employees, and themselves. This service can be access by dialling *101#.
As a responsible corporate citizen, MTN has requested the IWF to block the Outoilet domains which have raised concerns in recent days. MTN can confirm that these domains have been blacklisted on its network.
One of the most significant consequences of the success of this campaign, aside from the blocking of the sites and the removal of some of their financial reward, was the extent to which it demonstrated that industry self-regulation can work.
Calls earlier this year by a Government minister for a banning of all pornography online raised the spectre of official censorship of the Internet. This is typically the recourse taken by totalitarian states to control political expression, using morals‚ as their initial arguments.
World Wide Worx vigorously opposed the proposal. The role of the Government, we have argued, is not to act as a moral guardian over the activities of consenting adults. And no further regulation was needed to outlaw child pornography. Child pornography is illegal, soliciting children is illegal, exposing children to pornography is illegal. It merely requires the law to be enforced.
Where the perpetrators hide behind anonymity of technology and the safety of foreign hosts, the industry has shown that it can act a lot faster in this regard than Government ever could.
Follow Arthur Goldstuck on Twitter on @art2gee