Sweetie Project may have to move to "common law" countries to operate within the law.

A legal report commissioned by Terre des Hommes and Save Sweetie Now! implies that the Sweetie 2.0 project may have to limit its operation to common law countries such as the UK, US, Australia and Canada in order to remain within the law as its future use in the Netherlands may be construed as illegal.

Legal status of Sweetie 2.0 examined

Terre des Hommes was the first NGO to actively tackle webcam child sex tourism when it deployed the avatar known as ‘Sweetie’ to impersonate a 10 year- old Filipino girl in public chatrooms and forums online in 2013. The information gathered from public sources during that initial foray was handed over to the authorities who subsequently followed up on some of it and launched investigations leading to arrests in a number of countries.

However, the Sweetie 1.0 project was limited in scale because it was operated by humans. The follow-up, Sweetie 2.0, due to be introduced later this year, is an artificial intelligence (a “chatbot”) specifically designed for the task and far more scalable as it can be deployed in multiple instances simultaneously. The use of an artificial intelligence like Sweetie does raise serious legal questions and an intrinsic part of the Sweetie 2.0 project is an examination of the issues around the use of the “chatbot” from a legal perspective. Terre des Hommes Netherlands and Save Sweetie Now! commissioned a report by legal experts of the law departments of Leiden and Tilburg Universities, The Netherlands, to this end.

In summary, the report looked at two major concerns;

  1. A fundamental criminal law question: is interacting with Sweetie in a sexually charged way even criminal, given that Sweetie is not a person, but a virtual avatar? An answer to this question is important, because if webcam sex tourism with a virtual avatar is not considered criminal, it will be much harder to make the case that the use of Sweetie is an acceptable investigative method.
  2. A procedural question; as Sweetie as an investigative tool is so innovative, is it clear whether it’s use is actually covered by the existing rules of criminal procedure and does it’s use respect fair trial principles specifically the rules on entrapment?

The research was carried out over 19 jurisdictions, involving legal experts from those countries selected.

Findings vary according to approach to each case

As far as the first concern goes the findings of the report indicate that although most of the jurisdictions examined do criminalise webcam sex with minors in one form or another, the same cannot be said for webcam sex with a virtual person such as Sweetie. The arguments generated by the latter case are framed by whether a jurisdiction takes an objective approach (looking at the actual act) or a more subjective approach (looking more at the intention of the suspect) to the case. The Netherlands, for example, tends to be objective in approach whereas the (former) Commonwealth countries (UK, Canada, US and Australia) lean towards a subjective one. It is in these latter countries that Sweetie 2.0 can be employed as an investigative tool. The report goes on to say; “For those countries where it is impossible to find a crime description that can be used to criminalise webcam sex tourism with a virtual minor, legislative changes are needed in order to enable the use of Sweetie. The choice to move further away from an ‘act-based’ criminal law system towards a more ‘intention-based’ criminal legal system in order to combat webcam sex tourism is of a fundamental nature and would require careful ethical and political deliberation”.

No legal precedent

The second concern, covering procedural law questions in situations where use of Sweetie is possible, is addressed by examining the legitimacy of the application of Sweetie for investigative purposes. The findings show that in about half the jurisdictions examined the use of Sweetie is not covered by existing legislation or it is not clear that it is. The existing legal powers in most jurisdictions are not designed to fit Sweetie and there is as yet no legal precedent either. The report states that; “More clear rules on the application of Sweetie for investigative purposes will serve both the interest of legal certainty and those of law enforcement. By providing more clarity on the legal status of Sweetie, either through legislation, or by testing its legality in court, the proper balance can be found between protecting children and the rights of potential suspects.”

Possibility of entrapment

The report also examines the legality of Sweetie 2.0 from an entrapment perspective and stipulates conditions under which the “chatbot” must operate to maintain legitimacy. For issues relating to jurisdiction itself the report finds significant differences between countries in terms of investigative powers and suggests that Sweetie be used mainly in a domestic context and that non-national cases are handed over to local law enforcement in the relevant jurisdiction.

According to Hans Guyt of the Save Sweetie Now! project, the findings of the report could mean shifting the focus of their operation to countries practicing common law, i.e. the UK, US, Australia and Canada amongst others. "It is obvious that Sweetie cannot be used in countries such as The Netherlands given the limited mandate of the Dutch police to tackle sexual exploitation of children on the internet. The restrictions are such that even undercover operations – common practice in countries such as the UK and the US – are banned, let alone digital images of children as applied by the Sweetie project. We will therefore have to move our operations to countries where law enforcement at least in theory have a better opportunity to tackle this phenomenon which is spreading like an epidemic."

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