The rise of technology expands the potential of human communication. While this can facilitate ways of combating rights violations, it also increases the capacity of transnational corruptions. Human trafficking is one of the leading global crimes exasperated by online networks. It is used to attract victims, expand the offense, and protect the black-market economy. However, governments, organizations, and private citizens are using the same technology to track traffickers and reduce the occurrence of modern slavery.

How Does the Internet Make Human Trafficking Worse?

Traffickers look for victims everywhere online, such as through social media, job boards, chat rooms, and forums. The goal of criminals is to build rapport with individuals to develop a trusting relationship that eventually leads to a private in-person meeting. People, especially teenagers who appear isolated, depressed, unsupervised, have experienced violence or assault, or live amongst conflict hold the highest risk. However, anyone can be a potential victim. Commonly, the traffickers appear to offer support or promises of a better life to entice the victims to meet them.

One example is from October 2018. A woman from Texas filed a lawsuit against Facebook after a user of the social media site became her trafficker. According to the case, the perpetrator befriended the 15-year-old victim in 2012 and offered her a modeling job. She agreed to meet the man after noticing their mutual Facebook friends were people she knew in real life. After arriving for the fake job, she was assaulted and exploited by the sex trafficker. Her lawyers argue Facebook is liable for damages because it provided the platform for a trafficker who targeted a minor, did not prevent the usage of fake identities, and failed to issue a warning to its users.

In terms of expansion, the internet poses the greatest obstacle to ending modern slavery. It allows criminal rings to post online advertisements and communicate with buyers. In the United States, Backpage.com was widely known to be the worst legal website because of its adult services section, and throughout the world legal escort websites are also used. Sites like Craigslist, Reddit, and Facebook can be exploited as well, but they do not allow upfront detailing like Backpage. The company had been thought to be involved with editing advertisements which made it harder for law enforcement to track underage prostitution.

Numerous families of victims attempted to sue Backpage for its assistance in facilitating abuse, but section 230 of the U.S Communications Decency Act protected internet companies from civil prosecutions on trafficking transactions on their sites.

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Efforts to Combat Online Trafficking in 2018

In 2018, the U.S federal government took steps to combat human trafficking online. While the Communications Decency Act protected websites from lawsuits, it also allowed federal investigations. In 2017 Backpage closed its adult advertisement page, and this year seven company executives were indicted on numerous charges, with some relating to editing sex-advertisements. The former CEO, Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in cases involving the other accused Backpage employees, while the website plead guilty to human trafficking. After ongoing prosecutions in various states and federal levels, all of Backpage.com was shut down in April 2018.

Shortly before this, the U.S Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in March through bipartisan support and signed into law by President Donald Trump. The Act was a response to investigations against Backpage and the evolvement of the internet. It amended Section 203 of the Communications Decency Act to allow survivors to directly sue companies in civil lawsuits (as seen in the previously mentioned case in Texas against Facebook). SESTA also included a provision allowing state actors to pursue legal charges against persons or institutions suspected of encouraging sex trafficking.

What Will Happen in the Future?

The full impacts of SESTA and the shutdown of Backpage are to be determined. Craigslist recently ended its personal services branch, and other large companies attempt to change policies to avoid unintentionally supporting traffickers. Nonetheless, new websites similar to Backpage may appear, and it is the responsibility of legislators, law enforcement, and citizens to prevent online crimes from expanding.

Resources:

Ask Congress to Help Stop Online Child Sex Traffickers

https://www.unicefusa.org/mission/protect/trafficking/end/SESTA

Backpage Founders Indicted on Charges of Facilitating Prostitution

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/09/600360618/backpage-founders-indicted-on-charges-of-facilitating-prostitution

Backpage.com, CEO plead guilty to state, US charges

https://www.apnews.com/42a814a1b3c49a8a2f454bf79283474

Facebook, responding to lawsuit, says sex trafficking banned on site

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sex-trafficking-facebook-lawsuit/facebook-responding-to-lawsuit-says-sex-trafficking-banned-on-site-idUSKCN1ME038

Human Trafficking and the Internet (and Other Technologies too)

https://www.americanbar.org/publications/judges_journal/2013/winter/human_trafficking_and_internet_and_other_technologies_too/

Internet Safety 101: Educate, Equip, and Empower

https://internetsafety101.org/trafficking

Lawsuit Accuses Facebook of Enabling Human Traffickers

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/texas/articles/2018-10-02/lawsuit-accuses-facebook-of-enabling-human-traffickers

Polaris Applauds House Passage of Bipartisan Internet Sex Trafficking Bill

https://polarisproject.org/news/press-releases/polaris-applauds-house-passage-bipartisan-internet-sex-trafficking-bill