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The Role of Technology in Sexual Exploitation

Ever-increasing connectivity and online anonymity are making it easier to groom, recruit and sexually exploit with impunity.

Anonymity, as well as very limited regulation, enables exploiters to easily come into contact with potential victims. The increasing use of social media has also allowed for more opportunities for people to come into contact with offenders and has enabled offenders to anonymously interact with an increasing number of potential victims. Not only has the pool of potential victims expanded exponentially, so too has the pool of potential opportunistic offenders.

This is a global and growing problem

In many countries, legislation, law enforcement, and awareness have failed to keep up with the negative impacts of the internet and the challenges it brings. In others, the threat has not yet been prioritized or there are limited resources to invest in infrastructure or safeguards to protect children and vulnerable adults online. 

This is a global problem that requires harmonized responses from the international community. While some tools exist to combat this issue, they often focus on child sexual abuse images and are not used to combat other forms of online sexual exploitation or trafficking. This leaves a gap in prevention, particularly for adolescent girls. Online sexual exploitation cannot be combated in national silos, it is a global concern requiring a global solution, supported by strong interconnected national response mechanisms. 

The global response must overcome many challenges. For instance, any website, whether a large multinational company, one set up specifically to facilitate exploitation, or any other platform, may use servers located across legal jurisdictions. Another challenge is ensuring privacy and freedom of expression are protected while balancing the need for regulation that protects vulnerable people from exploitation.  

The sheer scale of exploitation online, and its continuing growth, can sometimes feel insurmountable. We must not lose hope. Technology can also be used for good. There are excellent tools such as Microsoft’s photoDNA, Spotlight, and AI technology that exist to combat this issue. Organizations like Thorn exist to harness the potential of technology to end child sexual exploitation. We must do all we can to encourage innovation and accelerate tech developments to tackle exploitation. 

Civil society, governments, and technology companies and platforms must work together to develop both policy and practical solutions. Only with their input and support can a solution be found. 

What is Equality Now doing about this?

  • We engage with international networks and platforms which are building a coordinated and cooperative global response to the growing challenge of online sexual exploitation, including developing effective legal, policy and technological solutions. 
  • We apply a gendered lens to research and understanding of the misuse of tech to facilitate sexual exploitation
  • We advocate for a global convention or common international regulations highlighting the responsibility and accountability of all actors involved in the trafficking chain.  

Technological and legal solutions cannot work in silos. Online sex trafficking is a global problem and requires cooperation and coordination among governments, tech companies, civil society, and survivors.