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Student Blog Series: The Role of the Internet in Facilitating Human Trafficking

Posted: June 9, 2018

In recent years, the use of the internet and social media have skyrocketed. The number of internet users has more than doubled in the USA in the last fifteen years, rising from 49.1% of the population in 2001 to 88.5% in 2016. In addition, as of January 10, 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 69%of U.S. adults use at least one type of social media (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram). Along with this rise in internet usage, a new means of facilitation of and access to commercial sexual exploitation has surfaced.It is becoming rare that human trafficking, particularly child sex trafficking, occurs without the use of some form of technology. According to a 2014 study done by Mary Leary, out of 715 cases of child sex trafficking, approximately 78% involved technology. Clearly,the prevalence of technology has impacted the way that human trafficking is facilitated. Traffickers frequently use technology in two main ways: (a) recruitment and (b) connecting buyers and sellers.

The recruitment of trafficking victims is typically done through social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and other websites and applications that allow for direct messaging. With the increasing amount of personal information posted by teenagers online,perpetrators do not have a difficult time locating potential victims. Typically, traffickers prey on young teens who display signs of depression, loneliness, insecurity, or other vulnerabilities. It is common that the trafficker or third party will use internet-based direct messaging to start a relationship with the victim. These predators will usually compliment their targets, offer them modeling or dancing jobs, or pretend to be their boyfriends or girlfriends. This process is called “grooming” and it is used by traffickers to gain the trust of their victims. Once a victim has been “groomed,” traffickers will use this trust to exploit victims.

Secondly, traffickers often use websites where they can post advertisements in order to sell their victims for commercial sex. Some of the most common sites used by traffickers in the past have included Craigslist and Backpage.com. Whilethese sites allowed users to post innocuous ads for local restaurants, community activities, automobiles, jobs, and other resources or commodities, there were also sections that offer “adult” or “erotic” services. Advertisements posted in these sections fall under categories titled “escorts”, “body rubs”, “strippers and strip clubs”, “domination and fetish”, “transsexual”, “male escorts”, “phone and website”, and “adult jobs”. Traffickers use these ads to sell their victims, including minors, for sex.

Because of the rise of technology, the ease and efficiency with which people buy and sell goods has risen significantly along with the ability to ‘shop’ online with ease and with a safe level of anonymity that was not previously available. This anonymity has allowed individuals to avoid the “social stigma” of buying sex. The ease with which people can encounter and purchase these services, along with the new ability for anonymity, has contributed to an increase in the demand for commercial sex.

Since Craigslist took down its “adult” section in 2010, Backpage had been the leading online advertiser of adult services in North America, making upwards of$27-million per year. Before it was seized by the federal authorities, Backpage offered ads in its adult/erotic services section in each of the major cities in the United States and many other countries, as well. It is estimated that 99% of their revenue came from its adult services section and that the site collected fees from users who used coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money. According to the Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris, “Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel.” Similar to AG Harris’s assertion regarding how Backpage was created, it has been alleged that Backpage.com is an intentional tool that was created for the purpose of facilitating prostitution, especially that of minors. While Backpage has been seized in the United States and its CEO has plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution,  this does not mark the end of the exploitation of victims through online advertising. Websites like Backpage.com, which are used to advertise sexual services and exploit victims, will continue to “pop up” “until we see a more comprehensive solution.

Recently, FOSTA/SESTA, was signed into law. This bi-partisan piece of legislation is intended to addresses the facilitation of human trafficking through the internet. Although the impact of this legislation is still developing and our country still has a long way to go in ending commercial sexual exploitation, laws like this one are a step in the right direction towards a better system to help victims and stop trafficking online. To read previous posts and analyses by the CSE Institute on these new laws, click here, here, or here. In addition, to read about who FOSTA/SESTA impacts and to understand the new law’s application, click here.

 

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

 

Lindsay Burrill is a first-year student at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Lindsay is from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Spanish and Clinical Sociology, with an emphasis on Social Justice, from Spring Arbor University. During her time at Spring Arbor, Lindsay worked as the intern for the Spring Arbor University Coalition Against Human Trafficking, where she developed her commitment to addressing the issues of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. During her internship, Lindsay assisted in training counselors and social workers on how to recognize the signs of trafficking and how to treat victims. In addition, she wrote a thesis on human trafficking trends along major highways in Michigan, based on data from “adult” advertisements posted on Backpage.com in 2015 and 2016.

 

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