The Internet’s Role in Sex Trafficking

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Sex traffickers frequently use the Internet as a tool both to lure underage victims and to bring in potential clients. The United States Code defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” A severe form of sex trafficking is defined as a commercial sex act that is “induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”  According to journalist Benjamin Skinner’s report, more than 27 million adults and 13 million children in the world today are victims of sex trafficking—an astounding number that has largely been made possible by the growth of the Internet.

Predators often use social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to lure unsuspecting girls into sex trafficking. Young men posing as “friends” use charm and affection to manipulate girls into trusting them, and eventually sell them for sex.

While social networking sites pose a danger, the most serious threat stems from classified advertising sites. These sites include Geebo,, Craigslist, and Backpage. While the law prohibits these sites from knowingly posting advertisements for commercial sex acts with minors or those who are engaging in commercial sex through force, fraud, or coercion, companies may try to avoid liability by claiming they are not aware of the nature of the advertisements.

 In 2011, pressure from U.S. prosecutors resulted in Craigslist’s “adult section” being removed. But, many of the posts simply moved to Backpage. Federal prosecutor Melissa Maragola said, “As soon as one goes down, another website or advertisement pops up.” Because there are around 14,400-19,000 “adult” advertisements on Backpage every day, it is impossible for law enforcement to comb through all of them to find those that involve sex trafficking. One advertisement from Backpage that was later confirmed to be trafficking a minor for sex simply read, “I enjoy catering to mature gentlemen. My body is a gentleman’s playground.”

 In an effort to screen and report potential trafficking advertisements, Backgpage recently began making more than 5,000 reports of potential trafficking advertisements to the National Center for Missing Children & Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) each year, but it may not be enough to resolve the problem. Over the last 5 years, suspected trafficking advertisements have risen 1,432%, the majority of which are from Backpage.

 Today, Backpage is fighting a lawsuit filed in a Washington Superior Court by 3 victims of trafficking.  The victims are supported by NCMEC, who filed anamicus brief on their behalf. Prosecutor Maragola stated that “Backpage will potentially face the same consequences as Craigslist.”

 Law enforcement has been making efforts to harness the power of the Internet to combat traffickers. In an address to the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama said, “We’re turning the tables on the traffickers. Just as they are now using technology and the Internet to exploit their victims, we’re going to harness technology to stop them.” Law enforcement is utilizing analysis software to identify Internet data patters that reveal traffickers—a process that takes only a matter of hours rather than the weeks that it would require if done manually. The private industry has also made efforts to fight human trafficking through the use of technology. For example, JP Morgan Chase has utilized its anti-laundering protocols, which detect illicit transactions, to uncover a sex trafficking operation.

 All of us can join the fight to protect victims of sex trafficking. If you come across an advertisement that may have been posted by sex traffickers, please report it to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. It is as important as ever to continue to raise awareness about commercial sex trafficking.

By Iziah Thompson

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