Human Trafficking Influenced by Digital Media

Alicia Kozakiewicz was just twelve years old when a human trafficker abducted her. Alicia began talking to someone over the Internet whom she believed was a teenager. Alicia’s mom knew her daughter was engaging in online discussions with someone, but she thought it was harmless. Alicia’s mom never considered the potential dangers that the Internet posed to her daughter. On New Years day 2012, Alicia’s mother called her daughter to come down from her room to have dinner, but she never responded. Alicia was taken to the online predator’s house and immediately raped. His intentions were to sex traffic her. This predator videotaped the abuse that he inflicted and posted it online in a video chat room for his friends to watch. Fortunately, one of his own friends reported the video to the police. The FBI quickly responded and rescued Alicia from a dungeon where she was found naked with a chain around her neck.

However, many don’t get a second chance at life like Alicia was afforded. The reality is that many of these victims end up trafficked by the person they met online and are never seen again.

Human Trafficking has existed throughout human history and continues to this day. In today’s world, trafficking is often facilitated by the use of the Internet, which allows for the human trafficking industry to process its human chattel at a quicker rate than ever before. People now can remotely log online from anywhere in the world and pretend to be anyone, such as the ostensible teenager/predator in Alicia’s case. The lack of regulatory controls in the online realm has allowed traffickers to buy and sell people with only a minimal fear of prosecution.

The most common site for human traffickers to utilize is known as Backpage, a website that allows pimps to advertise their victims anonymously. Backpages clients are able to pay for services in a non-traditional way, which makes them untraceable to law enforcement. They often use prepaid cards or other methods of payments that conceal their identity. When reading this information I asked myself, “Why doesn’t Backpage shut its website down or do more to prevent this from happening?” The truth is that even if Backpage were to shut its website down, it would only make a minimal difference because these criminals would just find another platform to use. Backpage says that its website has people who are constantly filtering out postings and flagging those posts that they deem suspicious and those that appear to be obviously illegal. I think one of the problems that law enforcement faces with Backpage is that it often only cooperates when presented with court documents, such as subpoenas, mandating it to turn over information. I think that if Backpage would work together with law enforcement it would make their jobs easier and these human traffickers would be caught faster. When reading articles about this topic, I scrolled down to the comments and one in particular stood out to me because it was so disturbing. Someone posted, “So-called ‘human trafficking’ is barely a problem worth our attention at all. The vast majority of it is just plain old adult prostitution, which is not only not a social problem but is a social solution. The phrase gets lots of play time because news outlets, just like movie producers and advertisers, recognize the value of the sensationalism of sex as a way to sell things. By conflating ‘human trafficking’ with prostitution some disingenuous people are confusing those unable to evaluate facts for themselves into thinking that prostitution is never a voluntary choice, and that all sex workers are some kind of slaves. That’s just not true.” It’s attitudes like these that allow for human trafficking victims to not be recognized as victims and as a result, many turn the other way when witnessing trafficking because they think its just prostitution. I think this topic needs to be further discussed and people need to spread more awareness on this issue so that society’s mindset can change. Often times, people think that human trafficking victims chose this for themselves and can leave at anytime which is not the case at all.

Another important legal issue that inhibits the prosecution of human traffickers is the fact that the means to track them down often run afoul of other basic rights. In a recent case in a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, Judge Stern stated, “a free and open Internet is more important than thwarting traffickers at all costs.” This case came about when plaintiffs sued Backpage and argued that they—the plaintiffs—were forced into selling sex and were found by their traffickers online through the Backpage website. They claimed that Backpage should be held liable for what they endured because the website allowed for their exploitation. However, the court ruled that the mere existence of an escort section is not illegal and the website was not at fault for their trafficking. While judges are not jumping to help the victims of human trafficking, there have been some congressional attempts to help. One example is The Justice for Victims Trafficking Act.

Congressional attempts to curb human trafficking, such as The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, are likely to help because it imposes harsher penalties for human traffickers and provides greater funds for law enforcement to combat trafficking.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act was recently amended and I have highlighted some of the changes. The bill amended the federal criminal code to prohibit knowingly: (1) advertising commercial sex acts involving a minor or an individual engaged in such an act through force, fraud, or coercion; or (2) benefitting financially from this advertising knowing that the person involved was a minor or victim of force, fraud, or coercion. The act also establishes the Domestic Trafficking Victims funds, which awards grants to law enforcement to provide protection for trafficking victims, to come up with methods to combat trafficking, and to provide services for child pornography victims.

I think that this law is a great start but perhaps stops a little short of its goal because it does little in the way of making website owners responsible for the postings of these victims. I absolutely think they should be held criminally liable because their postings allowed human traffickers to find their victims and later exploit them. Although the Internet is difficult to regulate, I believe there has to be some limitation to what people are allowed to post. In particular, because Backpage is so commonly used among human traffickers, a greater effort needs to be made by the website. According to After sex-trafficking arrest, Backpage.com under fire, Backpage charges a higher amount for adult ads than any other listing. Though Backpage tells its users that certain words are not allowed, human traffickers still find ways around that and use other code words such as donation or gifts to advertise people. Backpage as of now is not even required to verify the age of its users. Maybe Backpage is profiting at greater amounts because of human traffickers so they turn the other way and ignore it or just don’t care. The bottom line is that human trafficking through the Internet is a huge issue and websites like Backpage just make it easier for people to fall into the hands of these predators.

Reading about Backpage and its disappointing efforts in cooperating with domestic law enforcement impelled me to think about other countries. I wanted to compare the United States with other countries to see what the difference was in combating this issue. In order to compare the differences and similarities of how human trafficking is handled worldwide, I needed to look at the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

The TVPA act was enacted in 2000 in an attempt to stop human trafficking. The TVPA Act considers any person under the age of 18 who performs a commercial sex act, a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion was used. In addition, the act provides benefits and protections to trafficking victims and enhances pre-existing criminal penalties in other laws dealing with human trafficking. This act categorizes every country and state in separate tiers based on whether they have complied with the regulations set in place. It compares the differences in how law enforcement handles human trafficking, highlights the protections and benefits that are afforded to human trafficking victims, and examines how prosecutors deal with these types of cases.

Tier 1 encompasses countries whose governments fully comply with the TVPA regulations, which includes the United States. Tier 2 are countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA regulations but are making a good faith effort to be up to par with the standards. Tier 2 Watchlist incorporates all of Tier 2 but also includes the fact that their human trafficking numbers are rapidly increasing, they are failing to provide consistent effort to comply, and they are not committed to take future steps to prevent human trafficking from occurring. Lastly, Tier 3 includes countries whose governments are not making an effort to comply and have not complied with the minimum standards set forth in the TVPA act. Since the United States falls under Tier 1, I wanted to compare two countries from other Tiers. I chose Colombia, which falls under Tier 2 and Russia, which falls under Tier 3.

In Colombia people who have disabilities, are Afro Colombians, and are in areas where there are armed criminals pose a greater risk of being trafficked. In Colombia only one prosecutor was responsible for all of the transnational human trafficking cases in the entire country. Their prosecutors—or should I say sole prosecutor—has a heavy workload, and it is physically impossible for one person to do all of the work. The country has acknowledged needing more prosecutors to handle these issues but have not done much since.

Russia falls under Tier 3. The percentage of Human Trafficking that occurs in Russia continues to grow annually, yet Russia has contributed very little efforts to correct the issue. In Russia, there have been documented cases where Russian officials have facilitated human trafficking.

There are a lot of inhibitors to why human trafficking is not dealt with appropriately in other countries. Many law enforcement officials, like in Colombia and the United States, are not very educated on human trafficking and do not know much about it. There have been a plethora of prosecutors known to use the wrong criminal statutes to prosecute human traffickers, resulting in a lesser sentence. Agencies do not cooperate with each other and therefore do not have the authority to investigate human trafficking cases. For Example, the Federal Migration Service does not have the authority to investigate these types of cases. As a result, when they find someone that they suspect is a victim of human trafficking, they often arrest the victim for prostitution.

Finally, the United States falls under Tier 1. Women and children pose a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking compared to that of Colombia and Russia. Similar to Colombia and Russia, the United States needs to make law enforcement more aware on how to recognize human-trafficking victims, but it is by far more committed to the eradication of human trafficking than both of the other countries. The United States prosecutes more human traffickers and encourages its agencies to work together to combat this problem. Unfortunately, the United States, like in Russia and Colombia, have arrested government officials for engaging in human trafficking—though not at the rate that the other two countries have.

When I started this post I was confused as to why the United States doesn’t do more about human trafficking. However, when comparing the United States with other countries I was taken aback. I think that we still have lots to accomplish and lots to learn but I do think that the issue is taken more seriously here than it is in other places. What do you guys think about human trafficking online? How do you think it can be stopped?

 

I look forward to our discussion on Wednesday!

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~ by mruiz701 on October 24, 2015.

13 Responses to “Human Trafficking Influenced by Digital Media”

  1. After our discussion last week and reading your post it is becoming increasingly more obvious to me that this is a huge social issue. Instead of trying to help these victims, we are so quick to judge them or blame them for choices they may or may not have made. Alicia’s story is terrifying and sadly there are so many like it.

    I can’t believe that a judge would say a free and open internet is more important at all costs than helping victims of trafficking. Hopefully the amicus brief filed by Atlanta and other major cities where trafficking occurs will help in the pending suit against backpage. I am glad that Master Card and Visa are no longer allowing their cards to be used to pay on backpage. However, I see the site becoming very similar to the dark web and I think it will make these traffickers even more difficult to find.

    I do think amending the Communications Decency Act would be beneficial. it doesn’t help solve the problem if we are catching these pimps but then are unable to prosecute them. If they are not prosecuted they are just going to go right back out on the street and continue doing what they were doing before.

  2. I agree with everything that you said. Hopefully people will become more aware of this issue and do something about it. I think people believe that it won’t happen to them, when the reality is that it may happen to them or someone they know. It’s great to know that Master Card and Visa are no longer allowing their cards to be utilized for Backpage but people always find a way which is unfortunate.

    I’m sure at some point the Communications Dependency Act will be amended. It’s surreal to know that law enforcement gives some of these pimps a pass and continue to place blame on the victims. I look forward to seeing how this issue evolves in the future.

  3. I think it is pretty clear the CDA needs to be amended. A large part of my paper on copyright infringement revolves around a safe-harbor provision for Internet service providers with regards to copyright infringement and it is just as problematic as the CDA is here.

    The CDA was passed in 1996 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. These acts with similar results make it clear the government did not want to overburden ISPs when the Internet was still in its infancy, as subjecting them to liability for third-party actions could cripple them before they had a chance to grow and innovate. That is simply not the case anymore. The Internet is developed and the government does not have to worry about crippling it by forcing companies to take a little more responsibility for the content they host.

    It would be pretty disappointing if Backpage is not held liable at all. It pointed to the CDA and said it could not be liable as it protects ISPs “who act as good Samaritans by filtering objectionable content.” (http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2015/02/20/atlanta-joins-fight-against-backpage-s-alleged.html) This may be an accurate regurgitation of the CDA, but maybe more can be added to it as Marisol mentioned, whether it be requiring more cooperation from ISPs with law enforcement or more specific monitoring standards for content. Hopefully something is done as all of the statistics we have read about human trafficking over the last two weeks make it clear that the status quo is unacceptable.

  4. Both the online comment you illustrated, and the comment of the judge for an open internet being more important than catching traffickers, while deeply disturbing, didn’t sound at all surprising to me (especially given our discussion last week). I think it’s a habitual problem of our society, and others, to trivialize and demonize any issue in which sexual activity plays a part, primarily due to historical views on women and our control over their activity, and secondarily due to overall religious perspectives on sexuality. ‘If they didn’t want to be trafficked, then they shouldn’t have played it fast and loose.’

    As a comment mentioned before, one of our readings talked about how Visa, American Express, and Mastercard have stopped allowing their cardholders to utilize Backpage.com (http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/02/news/visa-mastercard-backpage-prostitution/index.html). But when looking at what you discussed, how Backpage is primarily payed for by others types of payment, I wonder if such act had any real effect on site users at all? Was it an act that actually had effect or true concern behind it, or was it simply a PR move that the other companies followed? Or perhaps just a legal protection for themselves? I don’t know.

    Perhaps what most concerns me though, is how you mentioned that while Backpage.com has gone through some motions to reduce the trafficking on their site, they’ve only done so at the point of legal threat. That to me is deeply unsettling and unacceptable. It makes me think that they absolutely do so because they understand how much of a marketshare their sit is for traffickers and the amount of money flows through them. Thinking about the video we watched last class, on how the business of human trafficking is second only to drug trafficking, I’d like to know roughly how much of a percentage of the money involved goes through Backpage. Considering how iconic the image of their company is with trafficking, I would think the company considers themselves to have every incentive to protect trafficking-users and keep the good times rolling.

  5. Backpage must be held liable if it continues this status quo, it is obviously looking the other way when it comes to human trafficking, if not flat out promoting it. The judges comment on the open internet it a bad argument. It is still possible to have an open internet and regulate illegal activity. How “open” the internet is should not be more important than protecting young people from being hurt and allowing criminals to make money off others pain.
    It seems that the laws must be updated so that victims of human trafficking are not being prosecuted for prostitution. This prevents them from stepping forward and going to the authorities. The problem needs to be stopped and punishing the victims of human trafficking is not going to help.

  6. One of the things I learned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office was that another site used for human trafficking is Motherless.com, a site similar to Backpage but much, much worse. Out of the three child pornography cases I was involved with this past summer, all three had visited Motherless at some point in their internet search history. So, I encourage you to (cautiously) explore that avenue of research as well.

    Your posting and the readings from this week have horrified me. But more than that, the comment sections in some of the articles we had to read have horrified me. The amount of ignorance on this topic is astounding. One commented posted saying that virtually all law enforcement officers involved in stopping human trafficking were actually paying customers, while another claimed that no law enforcement officer could possibly be involved. (http://wlrn.org/post/florida-ranks-third-human-trafficking-cant-prosecute-many-cases#comment-1003186899)

    The sheer ignorance of both parties explains that, even if these people weren’t representative of the general population, there are still people out there who have a blind faith/hatred for law enforcement, and that they genuinely believe human trafficking isn’t an issue. It’s distressing, especially when they could just do some simple research and find the truth.

  7. Similar to my comments last week, I think that man-power is one of the biggest issues here. It just does not seem that, globally, we have enough people on the case, so to speak.

    I also wanted to comment about the Backpage stuff. This is a perfect example of advances in technology having unintentional adverse effects. I understand the CDA may need to be amended, but they are following it. Like you said, if shutting Backpage down entirely doesn’t do anything to the cause, what is the purpose? The open and free internet is super important to society. I’m not sure they should be held criminally liable, though I don’t disagree that they should do more. It’s likely a check on the moral compass of the site operators. Criminals are going to criminal no matter what, I just have an issue with site operators being held liable for what their users post in general, outside of human trafficking issues. If the website is following it’s legal obligations, the issue is more with the legal obligations than the website.

    Look forward to our discussion on Wed.

  8. I think that Backpage should be responsible for its posts and face liability for what is put on the site. Much like we had said in the class discussion about copyright violations, it does not seem like it would be too much of a burden to ask sites like Backpage to monitor its postings and prevent much of the trafficking that goes on on the site. I think Backpage could take more responsibility on its own, but since it has largely not done much on this issue, imposing liability may be a good solution.

    I think it’s great that Visa and Mastercard have prevented purchases on Backpage because of the human trafficking issue. (http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/02/news/visa-mastercard-backpage-prostitution/index.html) I’m not sure what impact this will have. However, it is good to see companies taking this issue seriously.

    I guess I’m not that surprised that the U.S. is one of the countries that is dealing with this issue better than others. I guess I’m more surprised at how poorly some countries are dealing with human trafficking. I think it will take a lot more education on the subject before the government in the U.S. and elsewhere take this more seriously. I think what was said in class about eduating law enforcement about the mindset of child prostitute vs. human trafficking victim would be most helpful in dealing with this issue. (Also see slide on: http://advocatesagainsthumantrafficking.org/human-trafficking/)

  9. I agree with Anthony. This is a problem that cannot be eliminated in the society we choose to live in. There will always be criminals willing to provide whatever other criminals are willing to buy, especially when sexual motivations are included. This is why the solution for me is more manpower. This is not something we can eradicate simply with new legislation. IF were to make changes, I think that ISP and Domain Hosts should be able to be held liable for the content they allow on their sites. Basically we have to move the interests of these providers on the side of preventing this. To do this, you have to take the monetary advantage out of it. Make negligence the standard in cases of sex trafficking or human trafficking to levy a very heavy fine.

  10. I can’t believe Backpage hasn’t done more to fix this problem. I think that the site should be held liable for what happens on it. There’s no reason that Backpage couldn’t monitor its posts more closely and greatly reduce the human trafficking that occurs on the site.

    I think it’s good that Visa and Mastercard have banned purchases from Backpage. (http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/02/news/visa-mastercard-backpage-prostitution/index.html). I’m not sure how much it will help overall, but it is a step in the right direction.

    I’m not that surprised that the U.S. is one of the countries dealing with this better than others. I guess I’m just surprised how poorly some other countries seem to be handling human trafficking. I think a lot of people need to get into the midset that these are victims before there is global change on this issue.

  11. I think as future law makers, we must figure out a solution to regulating human sex trafficking on the Internet. I agree with Brittany that society’s perception must change. The PowerPoint slides at the bottom of one of the articles we read had an interesting slide on “how language changes our perception.” The slide discussed perceptions when describing a “child prostitute” compared to a “child sex trafficking victim.” EN 1. I think society needs to become more educated on this issue so that we can understand that there really is no difference between a child prostitute and a child sex trafficking victim. Perhaps as lawyers, we can encourage our local bar associations to hold community town forums to educate the public on this issue.

    I was happy to read that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is trying to make sex trafficking a state issue so that state prosecutors and law enforcement can have jurisdiction with these cases. EN 2. As the Internet continues to allow this crime to flourish, local law enforcement needs to know how to identify, investigate and prosecute these crimes. I was also glad to see Visa and MasterCard stopped doing business with Backpage.com. EN 3. I learned what a Bitcoin was during our readings this week and ended up looking up more articles to learn about this currency. EN 4. Bitcoin is now the only currency accepted on Backpage. EN 3. I think in trying to combat human sex trafficking in digital media, law makers must also try to regulate the Bitcoin.

    This was another very informative week, and I look forward to our class discussion.

    EN 1: http://advocatesagainsthumantrafficking.org/human-trafficking/#prettyPhoto

    EN 2: http://www.myfloridalegal.com/newsrel.nsf/newsreleases/1EFC7F967EA4096B85257BB2004D7F48

    EN 3: http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/02/news/visa-mastercard-backpage-prostitution/index.html

    EN 4: http://money.cnn.com/infographic/technology/what-is-bitcoin/

  12. Thanks for providing us with insight into a completely different aspect of trafficking from last week. Very thorough and interesting posting.

    One quick correction – the report you are referring to , Trafficking in Persons Report, is a publication of the U.S. State Department. Our government decided that it would be helpful to hold all countries accountable for efforts made towards eliminating trafficking. And while, it seems we are the leader (you always have to read carefully when the country issuing the report indicates it is the leader), there are many areas where we can improve. In addition, in our domestic legislation, which as pointed out above, is the TVPA, our legislators chose language that does not trace the international language and makes it more difficult to both prosecute offenders as well as to get help to the victims of trafficking. We will look at some of the difference in language in class. Even within the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, Congress chose in a related resolution to end the temporary rehabilitative housing that was provided for victims, opting instead to give block grants to the states. It would be interesting to see how many states have developed rehabilitative housing, as opposed to re-directing the money to law enforcement.

    On another front, the CDA does tie the hands of private litigants, but it expressly exempts criminal behavior from immunity. Is there a way to view what companies such as Backpage.com do so that its profit from the advertising falls within the exemption under CDA?

    Finally, on Tuesday, in my own airport I saw a large poster in the concourse
    asking the public to be aware of trafficking of women and children. I also cheered out loud, which I’m sure would have engendered many strange looks from the travelers around me!

    Looking forward to our discussion in class.

  13. Thanks for your post, Marisol. I think the internet being used as a vehicle for trafficking goes hand in hand with our policies toward prostitution. As really hit home with me last week after reading the NYU law study, http://lsr.nellco.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1303&context=nyu_lewp , there will always be trafficking to some extent but the best policy to most significantly mitigate it will be to license prostitution and severely punish the johns that do not follow licensing/regulated prostitution. We need to focus on criminalizing the force and coercion johns use over their victims as opposed to the sex acts that are the culmination of the force and coercion, despite how disgusting and despicable the sex acts might be.

    To me, the CDA is perfectly clear that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to impair criminal enforcement of sexual exploitation of children.” Plain and simple — no room for backpage to make an argument. But, that being said, what traffickers advertise on backpage as minor sex trafficking? So, in that sense, I give some deference to backpage that they should have some sort of immunity from posts that are not in good faith, but only where backpage does not know and cannot know of the child/person being exploited. And we all know that they know what is truly going on. In instances where criminal activity is clear, backpage certainly ought to be liable and they need to beef up their analytical software that can perhaps detect and deter these thinly veiled advertisements from being published. As we read, bitcoin is still accepted so in my eyes all Visa/Mastercard did was help keep the illegal activity underground in order to save their brand’s reputation. How does that help victims? Wouldn’t it have been better to still have Visa/Mastercard to assist law enforcement in tracing illegal activity? Does anyone honestly think Visa/Mastercard pulling out actually decreased the incidence of crime? Maybe I’m cynical but it seems like it was more about preserving their reputation and pandering to shareholder’s than caring about victims. This will be a nice segue into my topic next week about Bitcoin and virtual currency where I hope to discuss at what point are we entitled to privacy in our transactions and maybe one thing I can address is my concern that allowing the removal of Visa/MC payments could actually increase the crimes or at least deter detection of them.

    The Tampa Bay Advocates slides were great in again emphasizing that shift in attitude must be away from child prostitute and instead to Child Sex Trafficking Victim. Although I generally cringe every time I hear Pam Bondi’s name and am generally ashamed that UF awarded her a law degree (sorry, I will never forgive her for suing the Fed over Obamacare and advising our Governor to refuse to expand Medicaid for Florida’s neediest children), I am happy she joined the other State’s AG’s to implore the Fed to deputize State and Local officials to prosecute these crimes. That said, I’ll take one last jab at her and say that maybe if the neediest children had access to healthcare (including mental healthcare) from expanding Medicaid maybe at least one or two child sex traffic victims could have been avoided and her letter to the Fed would seem a lot more genuine.

    With respect to the Justice for Victim’s of Trafficking Act it seems like a really easy fix to me. As I said before, its unlikely that advertisements on backpage of victims are blatant and obvious, so what would happen if we removed the “knowingly” requirement and made it strict liability? I would be willing to bet that backpage would crackdown on the seemingly innocuous postings pretty quickly. If we combined it with a private right of action for victim’s against the advertiser like backpage then it could really change things fast.

    Anyway, that’s all I have for now, I know some of my ideas are seemingly way out there but ideas, even crazy ones, can turn into solutions. Looking forward to more discussion this evening.

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