The Role of Technology on Facilitating and Addressing Sex Trafficking - Equality Now

The Role of Technology on Facilitating and Addressing Sex Trafficking

In the United States, 2 out of every 3 children sold for sex are trafficked online.

In the United Kingdom, more than 8,500 sexual services ads are posted online every month. Traffickers are able to easily post ads for trafficked women and children.

The Philippines Department of Justice receives over 3,000 reports each month of children being sexually exploited and sold online.

These are few examples of the global and growing problem of online sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Technology, in particular the internet, has enabled sex trafficking to become the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, and contributes to its profits of a staggering $99 billion a year. Like any other “successful” business, sex traffickers rely on marketing and communication tools to ensure a steady cycle of demand and supply. Technology and the internet provide the tools that traffickers can use. Online resources such as open and classified advertisement sites, adult websites, social media platforms, chatrooms, extending into the dark web enable traffickers to interact with an increasing number of potential victims.

The trend is thriving because of a number of reasons. The ever more ubiquitous internet access and offenders’ belief that they can remain anonymous online has led to an explosion of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation all over the world. There is very limited government regulation of internet companies and platforms, and many of them have also not been good at self-regulating. The position that internet freedoms and rights to privacy of individuals using the internet are paramount and should be preserved, has hindered efforts to address protection of victims of online crimes including trafficking.

A complex global problem that requires global and multi-dimensional solutions

At Equality Now we see this technology trend as a complex, multi-dimensional and global problem. We believe that the solutions should reflect this understanding and be also global and multi-dimensional and supported by actors including governments, tech companies, civil society and UN agencies and informed by the experiences and perspectives of survivors.

In finding solutions, we believe that deeper understanding of the problem is an important step. There is need to do more in increasing understanding on how exactly how technology and the internet fuels sex trafficking, how online platforms are being used to traffic women and children. Not much is known about this. This is an area where governments, tech companies, civil society, UN agencies and donors must cooperate.

Technological solutions

Tech companies can be a force for good and provide technological solutions. It is with their technology and on their platforms that traffickers are recruiting, grooming, buying and selling their victims. Some have knowingly facilitated sex trafficking. But they can play an even bigger role in discovering, deterring and ultimately preventing these acts.

There are excellent tools such as Microsoft’s photoDNA, Spotlight, and AI technology that exist to combat this issue and we know that tech companies are already using these tools. However, our assessment is that these tools often focus on child sexual abuse images and are not able to combat and address other forms of sexual exploitation or trafficking, leaving a gap in prevention, particularly for adolescent girls.

Equality Now is calling on tech companies to do more. They have the resources and knowledge to develop solutions. They have a responsibility to their users and should ensure that their commercial objectives are aligned to the protection of vulnerable women and children. No single tech company can come up with the solutions. The magnitude and complexity of the problem, requires them to work collaboratively, in recognition that acts of trafficking, for example grooming, usually happen across platforms as traffickers seek to avoid detection.

Legal solutions

Technological solutions and proactivity by tech companies need to work side by side with legal solutions. A single solution will lag far behind the fast changing nature of technologically facilitated sex trafficking and may not be responsive to emerging trends. Equality Now sees a clear role for governments to come up with national laws and regulations highlighting responsibility and accountability of all actors involved in the trafficking chain including tech.

But technological and legal solutions cannot work in silo. Online sex trafficking is a global problem and requires cooperation and coordination among governments, tech companies, civil society, and survivors. At the international level, the Global Plan of Action the 2017 Political Declaration on the Implementation of the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons recognized the growing use of the internet to facilitate trafficking. It emphasized the importance of combating use of the internet for purposes of trafficking. Also, the SDGs commit to “Leave No One Behind” and should help to galvanize states and the international community to address this as an important global issue.

There is a responsibility for tech companies and governments at the global level to come together and define clear responsibilities for people, companies and governments going forward. A common global framework - as opposed to 193 different regulations and standards will ensure not only that everyone gets the same protections, but that any solution is effective worldwide. That is why we at Equality Now believe in the importance of an international framework and standards addressing online sexual exploitation, perhaps in the form of a Global Compact, signed on to by both governments and tech companies.

Read our response to Mark Zuckerberg's statement earlier this year, or sign up to our newsletter to learn more about how Equality Now works to end sexual exploitation across the world.