The Indonesian Communication and Information Ministry (Kominfo) has urged social media companies to ensure safety of their platforms after a message app was allegedly used in an underage prostitution case. The Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Regional Police recently found that traffickers used Singapore-based app MiChat to offer sexual services performed by underage girls in South Tangerang, a city southwest of the capital.
“We asked for a commitment from the instant messaging companies to take down accounts that are misused for illegal activities, including online prostitution,” said minister Johnny G. Plate in a statement on Saturday.
The case came to light after police raided the Alona Hotel last week and found 15 girls aged between 14 and 16, who were kept within the premises, according to local media reports. Three people were arrested—the hotel owner and manager, as well as the procurer.
“The pimp used a social media platform MiChat to offer the victims to perverts,” said police spokesman Yusri Yunus during a press conference. Facebook-owned WhatsApp was also used in some transactions.
The police investigated digital records related to the case to determine when Alona Hotel began operating as a brothel. Indonesia has tough anti-pornography laws, and prostitution is illegal in the country.
This is not the first time for MiChat to be embroiled in controversy related to prostitution. In 2019, it faced being banned by Kominfo after numerous reports of prostitution cases. “MiChat itself already has representatives in Indonesia, and has committed to take down accounts that are abused by Indonesian netizens for appointments or to promote online prostitution, based on reports by Kominfo, Polri (Indonesian Police), or the public,” minister Plate said.
Launched in 2018, MiChat connects users to strangers who are nearby through its “message in a bottle” feature. In MiChat’s description on Apple’s App Store, it is billed as a platform that offers a mixture of free messaging and online dating.
Even though MiChat’s community guidelines say that the company bans users for offering or soliciting sexual services, its review section on the App Store is full of complaints about the proliferation of prostitutes and fake accounts.
The app hasn’t published its user numbers in Indonesia. Globally, it has accumulated 10 million downloads, ranking fifth in the “free communication application” category in Google Play in the country, according to App Annie. Its abuse is not limited to Indonesia. In February, Malaysian police busted a syndicate in the state of Kelantan for allegedly offering women, who were believed to be single mothers, as sex workers via the app.