Sunday, August 23, 2015

One Stop Shopping - Fighting Child Trafficking through Eliminating the Online Middle-men

Super Bowl XLVIII will go down in history as being one of the most boring Super Bowls since its institution.  Your humble author will remember it by turning off the TV after half time, and going to do his Property reading, that suddenly became boundlessly fascinating in comparison.  For the parents of sixteen runaway children, who had been coerced into juvenile prostitution however, February 2, 2014 will be among the most memorable days of their lives. 

In a coordinated effort by over twenty law enforcement agencies throughout the country, sixteen juveniles were rescued from their assorted pimps and johns amidst the Super Bowl festivities.  This raid, however, begets questions as to how these girls, and the three to four hundred thousand trafficked children in the United States are trafficked. The brave new world of the Internet has left trolling for prostitutes on dingy street corners obsolete. Over seventy five percent of all trafficked children in America are believed to be advertised and trafficked over the Internet. This may conjure an image of a fat, sweaty man sitting in a darkened basement firing up his TOR client to head to a particularly sticky corner of the Deep-Web and paying bitcoins to an unknown trader. 
This image is incorrect. The vast majority of child prostitutes in the United States can be accessed through one perfectly legitimate looking website: Investigators have found that “nearly every time a child is trafficked in the United States, they have been sold on Backpage.” 

Backpage maintains that it is no different than any other online It’s difficult to quantify what percentage of the ads on the Craigslist-like site are for adult services. With that having been said, a cursory look into Backpage’s adult section in my current residence in Brooklyn, New York has shown that, since I started writing this post three hours ago, over two hundred ads (Note – that link is, obviously, NSFW) have been posted in just one section of the adult division, including an ad for “recently arrived, tight young Asian girls. VERY DISCRETE.” (Note – No, I am NOT providing a link for this.) In contrast, there have been thirty postings for landlords looking to show their apartments in the past forty-eight hours. 

Backpage itself has few illusions about the manner of services it provides. Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart has recently put pressure on VISA and Mastercard to not allow them to use their cards to pay for ads for potentially trafficked persons, citing, among other things, the prevalence of child trafficking on Backpage’s ads. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, in a rare stroke of integrity for the credit card industry have since agreed to refuse to allow their cards to be used to pay for ads for sex trafficking. 
Rather than take this as a sign that human trafficking, and particularly child trafficking is something that isn’t, and never should have been accepted, Backpage doubled down on their sex trafficking ads, wrapping themselves in the cloak of the First Amendment. Recently, Backpage has removed any and all fees for placing ads on their “Adult Services” section

Note that it requires money to place an ad to sell a couch or an apartment, but not a trafficked child. This step becomes particularly odious when Backpage sidesteps any technical difficulties related to lack of credit card verification by allowing them to enter the promo code “FREESPEECH” as a one hundred percent off coupon for any person wishing to peddle any and all sex services on Backpage. 

Backpage has been sued by two girls who were trafficked on their site, emphasizing that the search terms “underage,” “fresh,” (a known euphemism for underage) and “schoolgirl” were permitted on their site.  As a result of these lawsuits, it has been found that Backpage has refused to put in any manner of analaytic tools that would allow them to curb child trafficking. Backpage claims that they employ a “triple tiered” prevention system to avoid trafficking children. Attorneys for the three girls have held that this “prevention system” doesn’t amount to much more than clicking a box to ensure that the poster is over the age of eighteen. In short, Backpage’s robust, triple-tiered prevention system is exactly as ironclad as the same methods used to keep bored teenagers from watching videos on Which is to say . . . not very[1].  
Backpage has responded by suing Sheriff Dart for infringing on their free speech rights, and costing them over nine million dollars in revenue for their Adult Services ads. That’s right, Backpage is arguing that they should have the right to sell the bodies of children, because of the First Amendment. Just as John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson intended.

Currently, Backpage enjoys a certain indifference to complicity charges thanks to a loophole in the Communications Decency Act.  This is a loophole that could have been closed by the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation, or SAVE ACT, introduced in Congress last year, where it died an ignominious death in committee. It has since been reintroduced in Congress, as an amendment to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a bill that provided additional penalties for those involved in the trafficking of both adult and juvenile victims of trafficking. It would also hold websites potentially civilly or criminally responsible for any human trafficking, particularly trafficking of children that they may have engaged in, or profited off of. At this point any sort of movement would be encouraged, as Congress has not passed any laws regarding child trafficking or even human trafficking as a whole in the last thirteen years. 

Now, this is not to say that the bill is perfect. Indeed, many sex workers are staunch proponents of Backpage, preferring peddling their services from the comfort of their homes and computers rather than going out to the corners. They’re not wrong. And thus, it would make sense to establish a middle ground. Let Backpage keep their erotic services section, if for no other reason than to keep sex workers, who suffer from an unconscionably high rate of assault in their jobs, safe and off the streets. Pass a law requiring Backpage and its ilk to require proof of age for their models. This doesn’t have to include addresses, social security numbers, and full birthdays. Just some manner of ID that would show the year that the worker was born in. 

This would be but a small step in fighting the scourge of child trafficking. The real victories come from allocating appropriate resources and shelter to prostituted children, establishing rapport between communities and law enforcement to crack down on the pimps and the traffickers who perpetuate this trade. I’ve written about this before and I realize this is probably the last problem on Earth that has a single silver bullet. But I’m pretty sure we can all come together and say that there should be no reason people should be able to traffic children, and cloak themselves within any shroud of legitimacy, whether they be a guy on the corner, a john at the Super Bowl, or a multinational website. 

Travis Nemmer
Senior Staffer

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