OPINION: Child sex trafficking in the high-speed internet era

by Kailash Satyarthi | @k_satyarthi | Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation
Tuesday, 30 July 2019 00:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A girl walks between makeshift tents at a refugee camp for Haitians returning from the Dominican Republic on the outskirts of Anse-a-Pitres, Haiti, September 7, 2015. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Please remember that the children who are falling prey to online child sex trafficking are our children and we have to act now to save them

Kailash Satyarthi is Nobel Peace Laureate.

Recently, a 26-year-old man from Baltimore was convicted in the United States on federal charges for trafficking two girls aged 15-year-old and 16 -ear-old, and then posting their advertisements on a website to prostitute them. The convict stayed with the 16-year-old girl in a motel room along with another woman he was advertising and would leave the room when other men would come in and have sex with her. One of her customers returned to the room the next day to rescue her, and he took her to live in a different city with his sister. That girl was lucky, but more than 1 million children who are victims of forced sexual exploitation across the globe are not as lucky. Investigation in the U.S. revealed that from February 2017 to January 2018, the convict paid more than $1,000 for approximately 295 commercial sex advertisements placed on the Internet.

Globally, trafficking is a $150 billion industry, of which $99 billion comes from forced sexual exploitation. Today, almost 4.5 billion people have access to the internet. Around one in three internet users is a child below 18. An unregulated internet paves fertile ground to reap exponential profits from child sex trafficking. All that traffickers need is a laptop or a smart phone with high-speed internet to hit the ground running.  

The evolution of science and technology has been synonymous to the journey of freeing the minds while the digital space has been the enabler of freedom. Ironically, these tools have been slighted to shackles at the hands of traffickers and slave masters. This must be addressed socially, politically and technologically with a sense of urgency.

Traffickers are easily establishing contact with children through popular social media platforms. Children showing visible signs of loneliness, anxiety, stress or family problems on the social media platforms are the most susceptible. They e-meet several children simultaneously luring them with false promises and solicit compromising images of children over the internet. Once this material reaches the hands of the trafficker, the child falls prey and coerced into sex slavery. 

Traffickers advertise on websites specializing in adult sexual services, often coercing their victims to post on portals enabling offenders to view and bid on buying sex from children in their vicinity. Some victims livestream such content from their homes or hostels for which they receive payments through crypto currencies and online receipt mechanisms. To entice children, some traffickers even pay the mobile bills of their unsuspecting victims or send gifts using e-commerce sites as bait. Later they are physically lured for sex.

Online child sex trafficking is a fast growing organized global crime. It is important for nations to define online child trafficking to begin with and incorporate this crime in their penal code with proper criminal sanctions and punishments in place. Recruitment, advertising and financial transactions associated with online child trafficking should be criminalized.

In most countries, particularly the developing, there is lack of awareness about this issue. Illiteracy, poverty and absence of age appropriate sex education in schools further exacerbate vulnerabilities of children. Parents being the first line of caregivers and a big support system for children must build the bridge of trust so that children can open up about their problems in front of them. Faith leaders should educate and sensitize their followers in this regard. Inculcation of positive masculinity, counselling and effective parenting can go a long way in preventing online child sex trafficking.

Civil society must provide social, physical, and psychological support to the victims. It can provide vital information to law enforcement agencies that will strengthen legal action. Feedback from civil society and service providers can be an important resource for technology companies, government, and law enforcement actors in developing anti-online trafficking tools. NGOs can play an important role in raising awareness among children, adolescents and their parents about the modus-operandi of online child sex traffickers so that they are prepared to deal with it.

Social networking websites should restrict anybody under 18 from getting into private chat rooms. Technical tie-ups with search engines for combing child sexual abuse material on websites must be strengthened for bringing down such content real time. Digital payment companies should collaborate with law enforcement agencies to detect payments being made to buy child sexual abuse material online for stopping this crime.

Most importantly, the engagement between law enforcement agencies, corporates, civil society, faith institutions, health care givers and youth organizations should be a true partnership for a child-friendly world. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals place immense emphasis on partnerships to address the most challenging issues confronting us. In the case of fighting online child sexual abuse this should involve sharing best practices, leveraging diverse inter-organizational experiences, fostering policy advocacy to counter the crime by organizing the survivors as agents of change and providing adequate and timely support services to them helping re-build their lives. I have been rallying support from global leaders for a legally binding International law to stop digital abuse of children and online child trafficking. Please remember that the children who are falling prey to online child sex trafficking are our children and we have to act now to save them.