Protecting Children in Cyberspace

Two years back Pakistan Telecommunication Authority held a competition on ITU’s theme for 2009, “Protecting Children in Cyberspace”. Yours faithfully also participated and luckily won the first prize! The article itself is pasted below for you to read and enjoy. Best wishes :-)


Internet is in a constant state of growth and change. New technologies mean new services and hence it is always in a state of evolution. Internet is neutral and can be used by anyone for any purpose. There area lot of ills and threats thriving in cyberspace and children are susceptible to these ills. These are covered in some detail here along with a brief analysis. Based on the analysis some worth recommendations have also been made. These recommendations if considered for adoption can help control the menace of child exploitation in Cyberspace.

1. Introduction.

The Internet is strange in many ways. Since its birth it has been growing at a phenomenal rate. 100 million websites and 1.5 billion internet users later this medium is growing and still strong. Few would have imagined its potential and power just a decade ago and fewer still would have predicted the way it is today. Since its inception it has been used for a myriad purposes, there is business, the daily E-mail, news, recreation, education, entertainment, social purposes, research and the inevitable chat to count a few. Each day a new use, a new technology and a new purpose is discovered. One thing is for sure now, there is no escaping the Internet, that is, it is now inevitable. Cyberspace is difficult to control and dominate, today. As the number of its netizens comprising young, old, poor, rich, simple, troublesome, black, white and all increase its making its own set of rules and is akin to controlling an underworld, that is by all means huge and constantly growing. Human behavior, habits and actions are unpredictable and this very feature makes the cyberspace hazardous. Add to this the fact that in cyberspace everybody can be somebody and a nobody all at the same time and we have a very complicated situation. There are children, adults, professionals,students, hobbyists and business people and then there are people with fake identities, perverted ideas, and assumed characters.

The Internet is addictive because it is always there and surprisingly there is something for everybody in it. These features make it attractive for all, and children are no exception to it. It is their curiosity and urge to learn that drives them to ride the Information Superhighway. The vast and endless amount of information available on the Net is a wonderful feature, and hence the attraction. This attraction does not end here, for the Net is prone to all types of threats. Threats from predators, threat from unwanted data, threat from pornography, lurkers, unsolicited e-mails etc. Children in young and tender ages are susceptible to all such hazards and uncontrolled use of the Net can lead to circumstances and occasions that are unwanted and in some cases ugly. Besides control and monitoring, there have to be in place laws, rules, regulations, policies and guidelines so that the menace can be addressed at all levels instead of leaving it o the parents to guard the children. It has to be a systematic process covering various tiers, so that slips at one end can be covered at another so that the issue addressed in totality.

1. Pakistan’s ICT Statistics.

Internet was first introduced in Pakistan around the year 1995-96. Over the years its usage has increased and so have its users. After the Telecom de-regulation Act of 2003 both Internet as well mobile growth mushroomed in the country. Now with the introduction of newer technologies like broadband and WiMAX its penetration has further increased. The tele-density has in Pakistan has increased from 45.04 in 2006-07 to 58.8 in 2007-08 [1]. Pakistan’s tele-density growth during the last five years is shown in Fig 1 and the important ICT related statistics of Pakistan for the year 2008 are as shown in Table 1.


Figure 1. Tele-density in Pakistan. (Source: Pakistan Telecom Authority, Annual report. 2008)

Statistic                                                Unit                              Remarks

No of PCs / 100 inhabitants                       0.41

No of ISPs                                              50

No of Internet Connections                        3.7 Million

No of Internet Users                                17 Million

No of Cyber cafes/Tele centers

/10,000 inhabitants                                  5

Tele-density                                           58.8

No of PCOs                                             449,121

No of Mobile Phone users                          88,019,812

No of Internet connected cities                 3002

Table 1: Pakistan’s ICT statistics for 2007-08 (Sources: ISPAK, PTA Annual report2008, Ministry of Finance Economic Survey 2008, ICT Profile Pakistan: Asia-Pacific Development Information Program, Pakistan ICT Indicators: Statistics Division Government of Pakistan )

From Table 1 it is evident that Internet penetration has increased considerably in Pakistan during the last few years. According Finance Ministry of Pakistan, Economic Survey 2008-09 [2] the number of Internet connections in Pakistan is 3.7 million and according to ITU the numbers of Internet users in Pakistan is around 17.5 million [3]. The estimated population of Pakistan is around 160 million [4]. The literacy rate stands at around 40% [4]. It is important that the Internet is accessed by the literate people. In fact it would not be incorrect to say that illiterate population of Pakistan would be largely ignorant and uninterested in accessing the Internet. So out of the 60 million literates around 17.5 million have access to the Internet and that makes it around 10% of the total population. The total number of students enrolled in schools (Primary to Secondary) in 2005-06 is 31.5 million [5]. So it we can safely assume that a sizeable population of children comprise the total 17.5 million users. A number of factors have contributed to this increase and jump in numbers. These are summarized as under:

2.1 Decline in price of Computer Hardware.

There has been a sharp decline in the price of computer hardware during the last couple of years. This and the import of used and refurbished computers from abroad has resulted in flooding of local markets by various brands of computers and their related products.

2.2 Availability of Pirated Software.

The average Pakistani is unaware about software copy right issues. The local markets are full of any and all brands of software at dirt cheap prices; this has greatly facilitated the populace.

2.3 Mushrooming of Internet/Cybercafés.

There has been a huge increase in the number of Internet cafes all around the country. Almost every street and corner of any locality now has a cybercafé. The local unemployed youth found it to be a profitable business to run such cafes and hence the growth. Users are charged by the hour at most cafes which are generally thronged by the students and all those who have no access to PCs and/or telephone lines.

2.4 Reduction in IPLC Charges.

There has been a significant decrease in the IPLC charges by PTCL during the last few years. The end result of this all was the availability of cheap Internet facilities to the end user. In this regard efforts of ISPAK and previous Governments are laudable [6].

2.5 Increase in Tele-density.

The telecom industry in Pakistan has shown huge growth during the last couple of years as is evident form the tele-density figures. Although this also includes the figures of Mobile phones, but nevertheless the availability of Telephones and Customer oriented policies by PTCL has greatly facilitated the end users.

2.6 Availability of Internet access on Landline numbers by Telcos.

The single step by Telcos like PTCL and SCO has resulted in the provision of cheap Internet to all subscribers of landline phone holders. Now all landline numbers come pre-configured for dialup access and hence facilitate the users.

2.7 Availability of Packet Data Services.

Today all mobile operators in Pakistan are offering packet data services at competitive rates. Most offer EDGE and all offer GPRS. Although 3G is still a dream come true for the average Pakistani, still Packet data services have made it easy for owners of Packet Data enabled devices to access Internet on the go.

3. Defining the Threat.

The Internet is an amalgamation of various technologies. These when put together define the fabric of the Net. The technologies in turn make available various services for the users. Services in turn have various hazards depending on the use and abuse by the users. There are various types of threats that anyone can face, and children are specially susceptible to these threats. It is important to understand that nowadays Internet can be accessed by not only PCs, but the availability of other gadgets like mobile phones, PDAs, and smart phones make it easy to access the Net “on the go”. This makes the threat even larger as now anyone with such a device can visit cyberspace at will. The following are various threats that children specially face in the cyberspace:

3.1 Pornography.

Pornography is a big threat to anyone on the Internet and children are no exception to it. According to a report on Internet Pornography Statistics the total global pornography revenue for 2006 was around $97.06 Billion [7]. The total number of pornographic websites is estimated to be 4.2 million [7]. The availability of free porn at will to the netizens is a big menace. In the recent past there have been efforts at containing this threat internationally as well at national level. The suggestion for having a .xxx TLD name is one such example of the former case, and the blocking of offensive websites by PTCL an example of the latter. Interestingly, Pakistan ranks at the top position in the worldwide search requests for the keyword “sex” [7]. A survey conducted found that 80% of the children in Pakistan who went to Cyber cafes had accessed pornographic material [8]. This simply means that all is not well, if these statistics are anything to go by.

3.2 Child Pornography.

Young children who access the Internet by any means are exposed to threat of Child pornography. This is yet another danger. Pedophiles are always on the lookout for young children, both boys and girls who lure them in to exposing them or may even expose themselves to young children with the aim of trapping them for sexual purposes. There are an estimated 100,000 websites offering child pornographic content, illegally [7]. The same report states that the daily Gnutella requests for “child pornography” are approximately 116,000.

3.3 Sex Crimes and Sexual Abuse.

The Internet is largely a neutral medium which can be used by anybody for any purpose at will. Sex crimes and sexual abuse is another such risk. An example in this case is the Rawalpindi Internet Café scandal which was unearthed in the year 2003. Young unsuspecting couples, mostly teens were caught on tape during their unsuspecting moments and were later blackmailed by the café owners with threats of leaking their misdeeds. The very case shook the country and brought to light the happenings of this case.

3.4 Cyber Bullying.

Cyber bullying may include stalking, harassing or annoying the users or children by any means such as offensive remarks, use of strong language, sending offensive pictures or material. A child that is not aware of such language or behavior may become agitated and this can have adverse affects on his/her personality,

3.5 Money Swindlers and Scams.

The Internet is bursting with money swindlers, con artists, get rich schemes and many such money related scams. Unaware children may fall prey to such people or parties and loose money in the process.

3.6 The Chat Rooms Menace.

The presence of chat rooms is perhaps the most dangerous of all such threats. This is place where people with assumed identities and fake names lurk and thrive. There are millions of chat rooms of various categories on the Internet. Policing such a large number of rooms is not easy and here technology can play an important role.

3.7 Health Issues.

The repeated and prolonged use of computers, gaming consoles and handheld devices can result in serious health related problems. Repetitive Stress Injury, addiction to games, isolation from the real world and sleeplessness are some of these. Although this is not directly related to cyberspace but is important enough to notice as it can have ill affects on the child’s health.

3.8 Online Gaming.

Modern games whether played on PCs, consoles or gaming devices are addictive and hence worth noticing. These games may affect young minds in a negative manner as most of the games involve fantasy world, where violence and carnage takes place at an unprecedented scale. PCs and gaming consoles host games that have online access and hence may be accessed by children as a result of which they may fall prey to harmful material.

3.9 Spam or Unsolicited E-mail.

Spam or unsolicited e-mail is another dark area. According to a study an estimated 12.4 billion spam e-mails are sent daily out of these 19% fall in the adult category [9]. These e-mails may include invitations or advertisements to view pornographic material and hence may prove harmful for children. Although spam filters being offered by free e-mail services are quite advanced, nevertheless the possibility of getting spam is real.

3.10 Social Networking Websites.

There are millions of social networking and dating websites on the Internet. A large number of these websites are for adults only and gaining access to these is not difficult as most boast a simple process of making an online profile. Young children often give out their personal details on the websites including photographs, which may at times prove harmful. This fad has taken the younger generation by storm and having an online presence on Facebook or Orkut is considered cool and not having one unfashionable.

3.11 Mobile Phone Issues.

As stated earlier mobile phones falling in the 2.5 to 3G category can be used for fast Internet access. Moreover, all mobile operators in Pakistan are offering GPRS and EDGE at competitive rates and a new connection in most cases comes with such services by default. The following issues related to mobile phones need serious review:

3.11.1 Internet Access via Mobile-phones, Smart-phones and PDAs.

There has to be a procedure for disallowing access to adult sites when accessed from mobile phones. This is important since children with such devices are prone to the ills of the Internet.

3.11.2 Location Identity Issues.

Some mobile operators offer location identity ascertaining facilities to subscribers. Although this is a good utility of used in the right manner, but can also have adverse affects if misused and hence merits attention.

3.11.3 Subscription Services.

Mobile phone users may receive adverts on subscription services inviting users to subscribe for various services. This happens through text messages. There is also sms marketing software which invades a user’s privacy. Unsolicited sms marketing is now gaining popularity and therefore needs attention.

3.11.4 Premium Rate Services.

Premium rate services provide users with different options for entertainment purposes e.g. Group chat (voice), one-to-one chat (voice), songs etc at slightly higher rates than a normal call. Such services are available for mobile as well as landline users. Anyone with a mobile or a landline phone can dial the required number and start talking to strangers regardless of his/her age.

3.11.5 Anonymous Text Chat.

Anonymous text chat is being offered by mobile operators to the users from within the Sim Tool Kit and mobile users can simply start chatting away using their GSM connections.

3.11.6 The Inevitable MMS.

MMS is a service which allows users to send graphics, pictures or even movie/sound clips to other mobile users at very nominal rates using modern mobile phones. Children have been known to either get pornographic material from the Internet or to produce it themselves and then share it among themselves using mobile phones [8]. Most new mobile phone connections come pre-configured with MMS.

3.11.7 Anonymous Calls/Text Messages.

The phenomenon of receiving anonymous calls and text messages is not new. There is only one mobile operator in Pakistan that has introduced a service of blocking unwanted calls form undesired numbers. Although most operators do recognize this menace and have quite friendly procedures for reporting such instances, still the facility of blocking an unwanted caller is good if used in the proper way.

4. Pakistan’s Child Related Cybercrimes Statistics.

Sadly the statistics related to child related cybercrimes are non-existent in Pakistan. There is a serious need to delve in to this area. In the absence of credible data not much can be predicted or planned.

5. Local Laws for protection of Children in Cyberspace.

On 31st Dec 2007 Pakistan approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance 2007. In this Ordinance 17 different types of cybercrimes have been stated as punishable. A Police Cybercrimes Department has also been established at national level. This unit basically hires experts from the market for checking Internet crimes related mostly to financial or terrorism issues. There is no law or ordinance exclusively for the children. However, Chapter II of the Ordinance does specify a few crimes that can be applied to anyone in general, like Electronic fraud, Cyber stalking (including communicating via lewd messages or pictures etc) and spamming [10]. The Ordinance can be amended to include crimes specific to children in Cyberspace.

6. Laws/Measures for Protection of Children in Cyberspace in various Countries.

Developed countries the world over took notice of this menace long time back and hence enacted laws or measures for its prevention. Sadly, in Pakistan the issue has not come to limelight. Although people are generally aware of the menace but in the absence of statistics, laws and policing the issue has largely been ignored. Following are some of the steps taken in various countries for prevention children in Cyberspace:

6.1 Child Online Protection Act 1998.

This law was passed in the US in 1998 with aim of protecting children from viewing harmful material [11]. The US federal courts objected to it as according to them it is against the concept of free speech and hence this law was not enforced. However, it is important to note that the US Government was alive to this situation back then.

6.2 International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

ITU has launched a new initiative on prevention of children in cyberspace called as Child Online Protection Initiative in 2008 [12]. This basically aims at taking certain steps to protect children in Cyberspace. The ITU recognized that such programs and initiatives are already working in developed countries but in developing countries are either very less or non existent.

6.3 Australian Federal Police (AFP).

The AFP has a dedicated Child Protection Operations (CPO) team that is carrying out investigative and coordination activities for the prevention of children online [13]. This body collaborates with national as well as international stake holders like Interpol, NGOs, ISPs, hosting service providers and even the general public. The unit provides information on Internet safety, allows public to share details or report matters related to children who they believe are at risk from someone or have been abused.

6.4 Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOP).

This is an initiative of the UK Police with similar aims to that of AFP CPO [14]. The organization provides support to parents, teachers and children by spreading awareness on Internet related ills. It also aims at gathering intelligence about such issues, bringing criminals to book. It also collaborates with International agencies for these purposes.

6.5 Virtual Global Task Force (VGT).

Virtual Global task Force comprises of Police personnel from around the world with the purpose of countering online child abuse [15]. Both the CEOP and AFP CPO collaborate to bring criminals to justice besides providing support and help to adults as well as children for protecting themselves in cyberspace.

7. Important Conclusions.

Before giving recommendations a brief analysis of the important issues is presented as under:

7.1 ICT related statistics in Pakistan have registered a sharp increase. This trend is expected to increase more in the coming years.

7.2 Various factors have contributed to the increase in number of Internet users in Pakistan.

7.3 Out of the 17 million Internet users in Pakistan a sizeable population is that of the children who are at risk of exploitation and abuse due to various threats.

7.4 There are a number of threats that the children may face over the Internet or through use of mobile phones which need to be countered.

7.5 There is a serious dearth of statistics regarding child related cybercrimes in Pakistan in the absence of studies and surveys that can explain this trend in our society.

7.6 There is absence of laws on the issue of child protection in cyberspace in Pakistan.

7.7 The general level of awareness of the public on this issue is not very good.

7.8 The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance does not cater for the important aspect of protection of children online.

7.9 Developed countries have taken a lead in addressing this issue however; developing countries like Pakistan are required to take necessary steps in this direction.

7.10 A multi-tiered approach is required to protect children in cyberspace.

8. Recommendations.

Following recommendations are offered for the Government of Pakistan:

8.1 Involvement of Stakeholders.

The Government needs to take all stakeholders on board before tackling this issue. This includes ISPs, ISPAK, Ministry of Education, Ministry of IT and Telecom, PTA, Mobile Operators, NGOs, the general public and Police department.

8.2 Collection of data/Statistics.

It is important to collect data related to children related cybercrimes in Pakistan so that the exact picture can be ascertained. In this regard surveys and studies need to be carried out by the Government as well as non government bodies.

8.3 Policy/Laws on Protection of Children in Cyberspace.

There is a dire need of having a law on the protection of children in cyberspace. This needs to be discussed in the National assembly before ratification by the concerned bodies.

8.4 Awareness campaigns.

A wave of massive awareness campaigns has to be started with the aim of educating and making aware the parents, users, children and teachers regarding the vulnerability of children in cyberspace. This could include the following:

8.4.1 Use of Media.

Spread the word around through advertisements in Papers, FM radio, TV and Internet.

8.4.2 Awareness Programs.

Discussions and programs on public and/or private media channels need to be arranged for making the general public aware about this issue.

8.4.3 Workshops and Campaigns.

Workshops and awareness campaigns should be held at schools, colleges and institutions inviting the students, faculty as well as parents. NGOs can play an important role here.

8.5 Education.

There is a need to make the topic of cyber related threats and crimes a part of the children’s syllabus. Most of the schools today are teaching Computer Science as a subject from primary level, therefore, the same syllabus can be modified and a chapter could be included for educating the children on the ills prevailing in cyberspace. Teachers also need to be educated on this issue so that they are able to guide the students.

8.6 Role of ISPs.

The ISPs and ISPAK can play a very important role here. The

following are some of the doable recommendations for ISPs:

8.6.1 Children Package.

A children package can be exclusively launched by ISPs. This can include blocking of websites at the local level so as to protect the children.

8.6.2 Startup Messages.

The default homepage can be set to display a message warning the user to use the web safely to his/her advantage. This could display important information about the issue under discussion.

8.6.3 Instructions on buying a new connection.

Detailed instructions for the users and parents regarding safe web browsing, net etiquettes and various hazards of Internet.

8.7 Mobile Operators.

Mobile operators should also contribute their share. Some worthy recommendations are:

8.7.1 Children Package.

To date there is only one operator in Pakistan that has launched a package for use by the children only. This includes options for making calls only to specified numbers and/or receiving text/calls from specified numbers. All Mobile operators should launch packages solely for children from 7 to 18 years of age. Operators should be told to sell new connections to minors only if accompanied by parents.

8.7.2 VAS and other services.

The services mentioned in section 3.11 should not be activated by default in fact the user should get them activated only if required. In order to discourage the use of such services users should be asked to visit the respective Customer Services Centers for getting these services activated. The package tailored for children should either not include any of the following or it may be activated with the consent of parents: Internet via GPRS/EDGE. Location Identity. Subscription Services. Premium Rate Services. Anonymous Chat. MMS.

8.7.3 User Awareness.

The mobile operators should also make aware the parents and adults about the issue under discussion via leaflets, text messages and seminars.

8.8 Involvement of Police.

The Cybercrimes division of the Police Department should be asked to include protection of children in their mandate to tackle this problem. Necessary amendments in Police laws may be required for this purpose. They should also collaborate with International agencies like Interpol and VGTF since the Internet transcends physical boundaries and online crimes can be committed regardless of one’s physical presence at the crime scene.

8.9 Use of Right Technology.

Following steps may be taken for introducing technology related solutions to these problems:

8.9.1 Filtering Software.

Use of filtering software should be promoted for children accessing the Internet. Educational institutions, cybercafés and normal users should also be asked to use such software for making web usage safe for kids. Net Nanny, Cyber Sitter and Cyber Patrol are a few examples in this case.

8.9.2 Web Safe Browsers.

There is a plethora of web safe browsers available in the market today [16]. These can be made use of. Alternatively the Government can get a web safe browser developed for meeting needs of the local market. All stakeholders should promote use of such applications in their advertisements or awareness programs.

8.9.3 Open Source Solutions.

The web is littered with Open source solutions targeted for various audiences and tailored to meets specific needs of organizations or individuals. [17] is one such website where projects developed by individuals or groups are uploaded for free usage by everyone and anyone. These could be made use of or the government can also get a Linux distro developed specifically for the children. This could also reduce our reliance on pirated software and at the same time provide cheap home made solutions to the public.

8.10 Reporting Procedure.

A dedicated website should be made for reporting all such crimes committed against children in cyberspace. This could include general information, education and awareness lectures on child protection, links to important websites, a procedure for filing complaints online, via helpline or offline. The website should give a one stop solution on the topic under discussion.

8.11 Review of Policy and other Issues.

Upon successful completion of this project a time limit should be set by the Government to review the policies, laws and or various steps taken. This would be useful because the web is always changing and in a state of evolution, hence periodic reviews of these issues can be fruitful.

8.12 Role of NGOs.

NGOs can play a very important role by carrying out surveys, collecting data, spreading the word around, helping in policy formulation and user education etc.

8.13 Collaboration with International Agencies.

Collaboration with International agencies like Interpol and Virtual Global Taskforce for checking such crimes should be done. This will also help in sharing valuable information and statistics besides tracking wanted criminals. A similar procedure has been adopted by the APF and CEOP as discussed earlier.

8.14 Monitoring of Cybercafés.

Cybercafés need to be registered with Government. In fact it would not be a bad idea to make it mandatory for anyone to apply for a license to start a Cybercafé. This will ensure that such establishments do not act as dens of pornography. Necessary laws and policies in this regard can be enact out by the Government.

9. Conclusion.

The Internet is here to stay and it is up to us how we use or abuse it. Free speech pundits and advocates shun the notion of blocking offensive websites as according to them it is against the principles and ideas of free speech. The responsibility therefore, now lies on the users and those who are being affected by its ills. Hence it is the user end that needs to be brought on board. Interestingly, this challenge is not there for a few people, it is for everyone. Our children are our future protecting them is our responsibility, as is educating them or taking care of them. We are already late and the time is now to make a start so that minimal damage is done.


1. Pakistan Telecom Authority: Chapter 1 ‘Pakistan Economy’, Annual Report, 2008.

2. Ministry of Finance: Chapter 13, Economic Survey 2008-09.

3. International Telecommunication Union (ITU), , visited on 16 Apr, 2009.

4. Statistics Division, Ministry of Economic Affairs Government of Pakistan, , visited on 16 Apr, 2009.

5. Ministry of Education, Pakistan Education Statistics 2005-06, , visited on 16 Apr, 09.

6. ISPAK Achievements: , visited on 16 Apr, 2009.

7. Internet pornography Statistics by Jerry Ropelato: , , visited on 15 Apr, 1009.

8. CWIN Nepal: Concept Paper, Protecting Children Online in Nepal – page 4; CWIN Campaign of Protecting Children Online, , visited on 16 Apr, 2009.

9. Spam Statistics 2006; , visited on 16 Apr, 2009.

10. Ordinance No LXXII of 2007: Federal Investigation Agency Government of Pakistan , Chapter II, , visited on 16 Apr, 2009.

11. COPA Commission , , visited on 18 Apr, 2009.

12. International Telecommunication Union (ITU), , visited on 18 Apr, 2009.

13. Australian Federal Police Child Protection Operations, , visited on 18 Apr, 2009.

14. Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (CEOP) ,, visited on 19 Apr, 2009.

15. Virtual Global Task Force (VGTF), , visited on 19 Apr, 2009.

16. , , visited on 19 Apr, 2009.

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50 plus….loner……foodie….day dreamer….bibliophile…..gun freak….peace loving….smitten by wanderlust….happy go lucky….tea junkie….coffee lover….once in a while movie goer….laid-back blogger with no interest in politics….Happy reading! :-)

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