As laws fail to slow online sex trade, experts turn to tech

by Umberto Bacchi and Naimul Karim | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 17:38 GMT

Silhouettes of laptop users are seen next to a screen projection of binary code are seen in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

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Using technology to continuously monitor and analyse this kind of data is key to evaluating existing laws and designing new and more effective ones

By Umberto Bacchi and Naimul Karim

LONDON, Nov 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The online sale of sex slaves is going strong despite new U.S. laws to clamp down on the crime, data analysts said on Wednesday, urging a wider use of technology to fight human trafficking.

In April, the United States passed legislation aimed at making it easier to prosecute social media platforms and websites that facilitate sex trafficking, days after a crackdown on classified ad giant Backpage.com.

The law resulted in an immediate and sharp drop in sex ads online but numbers have since picked up again, data presented at the Thomson Reuters Foundation's annual Trust Conference showed.

"The market has been destabilised and there are now new entrants that are willing to take the risk in order to make money," Chris White, a researcher at tech giant Microsoft who gathered the data, told the event in London.

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Backpage.com, a massive advertising site primarily used to sell sex - which some analysts believe accounted for 80 percent of online sex trafficking in the United States - was shut down by federal authorities in April.

Days later, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which introduced stiff prison sentences and fines for website owners and operators found guilty of contributing to sex trafficking, was passed into law.

The combined action caused the number of online sex ads to fall 80 percent to about 20,000 a day nationwide, White said. The number of ads has since risen to about 60,000 a day, as new websites filled the gap, he said.

In October - in response to a lawsuit accusing it of not doing enough to protect users from human traffickers - social media giant Facebook said it worked internally and externally to thwart such predators.

Using technology to continuously monitor and analyse this kind of data is key to evaluating existing laws and designing new and more effective ones, White said.

"It really highlights what's possible through policy," added Valiant Richey, a former U.S. prosecutor who now fights human trafficking at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), echoing the calls for new methods.

Law enforcement agencies currently tackle slavery one case at a time but the approach lacks as the crime is too widespread and authorities are short of resources, he said.

As a prosecutor in Seattle, Richey said his office would work on up to 80 cases a year, while online searches revealed more than 100 websites where sex was sold in the area, some carrying an average of 35,000 ads every month.

"We were fighting forest fire with a garden hose," he said. "A case-based response to human trafficking will not on its own carry the day."

At least 40 million people are victims of modern slavery worldwide - with nearly 25 million trapped in forced labour and about 15 million in forced marriages.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi and Naimul Karim, Writing by Umberto Bacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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