Technology's role in human trafficking cannot be ignored

Four years ago, I met a young woman, let’s call her Sarah, who was bought and sold for sex for much of her childhood. She told me about being sold to a dozen men most nights. And even though Sarah would tell some of the buyers that she was just a girl, underage and in need, none of them ever did anything to help.

The sexual exploitation of children is difficult to talk about. The idea that some would take advantage of victims so vulnerable and powerless is appalling just to consider. But what’s even harder to admit is that this abuse happens every day, right here at home, in communities all around us. Sarah isn’t from a country far away; she grew up here in the U.S.

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Having met Sarah and many other victims of trafficking, most the same age as my own daughters are now, it’s impossible for me to ignore this issue, no matter how difficult it can be to confront. Thankfully, the U.S. Congress is now speaking loudly for those who in the past have been denied a voice. 

 

This week, there are 12 bills coming before the House that address these awful injustices. They span a range of initiatives: from expanding and enhancing tools for the investigation and prosecution of those who buy and sell sex with children; to ensuring that these offenders are held to account not only through criminal convictions and sentencing but also through lifelong registration and reporting requirements. The bills also make provisions for the treatment, housing, training, and education of trafficking victims. 

Most importantly, these bills seek to ensure that minors who are trafficked are treated as victims rather than as criminals. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Miss.) — whose Trafficking Survivors Relief Act, a bipartisan proposal with Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassThe nearly 60 Dems who voted for impeachment Sessions grilled by lawmakers from both parties Niger tragedy underscores the need for a coherent Africa strategy, answers MORE (D-Calif.), would give survivors a fresh start and an opportunity to recover from trauma, social stigma, and discrimination — puts it aptly, "No victims of trafficking should be criminalized for the horrific exploitation they have endured. These victims deserve a fresh start and a fair shot at rebuilding their lives." 

The Senate has also shown bipartisan leadership in addressing the crime of human trafficking. A recent example was the bipartisan investigation, led by Senators Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats turn on Al Franken Trump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (herself a former sex crimes prosecutor), into the classified advertising portal, Backpage. That investigation led to the shutdown of Backpage’s adult listings, which had become a marketplace for child trafficking.  

I’m also pleased that the executive branch is deeply involved too; I was happy to join a recent roundtable that Ivanka Trump led, gathering bipartisan congressional leadership with anti-human trafficking experts to develop concrete steps to thwart child trafficking.

But technology's role in human trafficking cannot be ignored — as the example of Backpage demonstrates. The sad reality is that three out of four child sex trafficking victims in the U.S. have been exploited online. And perpetrators often make their first connections to victims on the Internet. Backpage is one prominent example, but there were others before. And after Backpage, there will, unfortunately, be new services that pop up — many of which exist in the dark corners of the web and on private peer-to-peer networks. 

So as I applaud congressional efforts to fight child trafficking, I also acknowledge that the tech industry must be part of the solution. This really is an issue where strong policies, technology, and investment, can make a difference in the fight against this ghastly criminal enterprise in our midst.

First, responsible services must be vigilant to help throttle the distribution of child trafficking advertisements. Google and many other companies have a zero tolerance approach to advertising for child trafficking. Backpage, for example, has been prohibited from advertising on Google for years.

We also know that we can work together to harness the power of technology to help get abusive photos and videos offline. Recently, a group of eight technology companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter, came together to create a system that lets companies flag photos from one site across the whole group. This speeds up the process of taking down posts. Today, more than 125,000 images have been added to the system, with more being tracked every hour. And the number of abusive images that we were able to remove doubled after we implemented the new system. I encourage other tech companies to embrace this technology.

The industry must continue to partner with law enforcement, NGOs and anti-trafficking organizations to show how technology can facilitate the arrest and prosecution of traffickers and perpetrators. Organizations on the frontlines, like Thorn, Demand Abolition, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Polaris and the International Justice Mission, are the ones who enable technology solutions to have an impact, so the industry must continue to work in lockstep with them. 

For example, several Google engineers worked with Thorn and the Hovde Foundation to develop a tool called Spotlight, which harnesses artificial intelligence to comb through millions of ads online and flag potential child victims. This tool is now used by law enforcement in all 50 states. And in a single year, Spotlight helped identify over 6,000 victims and 2,000 traffickers. With advances in machine learning technology, we can continue to improve this technology and make it even more broadly available.

Thanks to her own perseverance and power of will, Sarah was eventually able to escape her perpetrator. But we can’t leave Sarah and all the other girls, and boys, who are being bought and sold to fend for themselves. Together, Congress, the technology industry and the White House must ensure that we help survivors and victims find justice, while working to fight child trafficking in all its forms. The crime may be hard to talk about, but we can’t betray girls like Sarah with our silence.

 

Susan Molinari is a former Member of Congress from New York, and is currently Vice President of Public Policy and Government Relations at Google and Board Member of WeProtect.


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