In the anti-trafficking field, attention is growing towards a new and looming problem: the online sexual exploitation of children. While traditionally, child trafficking has happened in places like bars and brothels or sometimes hotels, with the growth of the internet, traffickers and other exploiters are moving online in the form of sexually explicit imagery and even live-streaming of abuse. It is shared on the dark web, but also, more brazenly, on social media apps ranging from Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder to Kik and WhatsApp.
We’ve written before on how “grooming” is the pathway to sexual exploitation and trafficking. Children are approached and befriended on social media, and as the relationship grows, building emotional connection and trust, traffickers and exploiters ask the kids to do increasingly risqué things. They manipulate and control the kids, as they increase the abuse.
Why Combatting Trafficking Online Is So Challenging
Moving trafficking and exploitation onto the internet completely shifts the dynamic of the problem. First, it turns the problem instantaneously transnational. This means the victim, the trafficker, and the john can all be in separate places–even separate continents. This requires an incredible amount of coordination amongst legal authorities, who may run into problems of jurisdiction.
Second, some of the technologies being used in live-streaming make it very difficult to procure the evidence necessary to prosecute a case. The internet allows many more ways for traffickers to hide their activity.
Third, the sheer scale of the problem: the numbers of people involved in so many places–it easily outstrips the resources most legal authorities have, when it often takes years to identify victims and perpetrators, and then build an effective investigation and prosecution.
Governments Have Responded
Both national and international authorities are responding to the problem. The U.S. passed the FOSTA-SESTA legislation to crack down on sites like Backpage. Thailand is imposing harsher penalties against rapists and traffickers, and other Asian nations may follow suit. In the U.K., the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is holding internet companies to account, investigating whether they have paid adequate attention to dealing with the problem, with a “White Paper” suggesting they should be fined or blocked if they haven’t. Meanwhile, last month, the Council of Europe organised a regional conference in Strasbourg on online child sexual exploitation and abuse–a first for the Council.
But This Opens Tricky Ethics Questions
When the problem of trafficking moves online, a question arises: Whose responsibility is it to deal with the problem? Legal authorities across the globe are making efforts to combat it the way they can: through legislation and prosecution. But as is widely recognized, the problem is incredibly taxing on their resources and legal systems are slow and cumbersome tools trying to catch up with quick, ever-changing technology. So then people look to social media and internet companies to police themselves or potentially face stiff penalties.
But is this where responsibility lies? Social media companies may try to take down some offenses, but ultimately, their own motives are going to continually serve at cross-purposes with taking down content that gets views, no matter how abhorrent. Can they be trusted to vet content thoroughly and be wise and ethical gate-keepers? How do we foster that level of wisdom and expertise in them? And, while no decent person would question the importance of eradicating abusive content, especially involving children, the level of oversight required to monitor the internet runs at odds with values of freedom of expression and of privacy that are sacred to democracy and fundamental human rights.
These are truly tricky ethical questions that societies from the local level on up to the global level will increasingly have to grapple with, and it may be a long time before we settle on any kind of collective answer.
But there are still things we can do in the meantime.
What Prevention Can Do
We don’t have to wait to settle these thorny ethical questions in order to take meaningful action. The more we can raise awareness about the fact that this is a problem (here’s a test: the next time you’re out with a group of friends or acquaintances, ask them if they know that child sexual slavery exists and is a widespread, global problem), that it can affect everybody, even kids in your hometown, and the more we can teach our kids about their rights to bodily privacy and integrity, what manipulation and abuse looks like, how to protect themselves, and how to respond if they or someone they know gets lured into a trafficker’s trap, the fewer kids will be vulnerable to that kind of manipulation.
We can educate ourselves about how abuse doesn’t always look like abuse at the beginning.
We can support authorities in their efforts by reporting images and content that violate community standards.
We can grow less tolerant of attitudes and actions that send the message that rape is okay, or that rape is in any way a victim’s fault. We can instead send the message that victims of rape should feel supported in speaking out about what happened to them, that they will be believed and not be shamed.
We can build strong social networks of support so children feel loved and cared for, and that they have no need for anything a trafficker tries to offer.
We can make it so that traffickers have no one left to exploit.