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Combating Child Sex Trafficking in the Digital Age

Globally, human trafficking generates average annual profits of $150 billion, of which two-thirds come from forced sexual exploitation. With the rapid growth of digital platforms threatening to make child sex trafficking even more lucrative, the world must step up its efforts to prevent this appalling crime.

By Kailash Satyarthi

NEW DELHI – A 26-year-old man from Baltimore was recently convicted in the United States on federal charges of trafficking two girls, aged 15 and 16, and then posting advertisements on a website offering them as prostitutes. The man had stayed with the 16-year-old girl in a motel room, along with a woman whom he was also prostituting, and would leave the room when men came to have sex with the girl. One of her customers returned the following day to rescue her and took her to live in another city with his sister.

That girl was relatively lucky, but more than one million child victims of forced sexual exploitation around the world are far less fortunate. Globally, human trafficking generates average annual profits of $150 billion, of which two-thirds ($99 billion) come from forced sexual exploitation. With the rapid growth of digital platforms threatening to make child sex trafficking even more lucrative, the world must take urgent, coordinated action to combat this appalling crime.

Today, almost 4.5 billion people have access to the Internet, and around one in three Internet users is under the age of 18. The unregulated online world is therefore fertile ground for reaping enormous profits from child sex trafficking. Would-be traffickers need only a laptop or a smartphone with a high-speed Internet connection to go into business.

Traffickers can easily contact children through popular social media platforms. Children who show visible signs of loneliness, anxiety, stress, or family problems are the most vulnerable. Traffickers “e-meet” several children simultaneously, lure them with false promises, and solicit compromising digital images of them. Once the trafficker has this material, the child becomes easy prey and is coerced into sex slavery.

Child-sex traffickers advertise on websites specializing in adult sexual services, and often force their victims to post on portals that enable viewers to buy sex from children in their vicinity. (In the US case above, the trafficker paid more than $1,000 to place almost 300 advertisements online between February 2017 and January 2018.) Some victims live stream content from their homes or hostels, in exchange for payment in cryptocurrencies and via online-receipt mechanisms. To entice children, some traffickers even pay their mobile-phone bills or send gifts using e-commerce sites as bait. Later, the children are physically lured for sex.

Because online child sex trafficking is a fast-growing global organized crime, combating it effectively requires a range of legal, political, social, and technological measures. For starters, all countries need to define the crime of online child trafficking and incorporate it into their national penal codes, along with tough punishments for violators. All recruitment activities, advertising, and financial transactions associated with online child trafficking should also be criminalized.

Raising awareness about the issue is also crucial – especially in developing countries, where illiteracy, poverty, and a lack of age-appropriate sex education in schools can leave children even more vulnerable. Parents must build bridges of trust so that their children feel able to open up about their problems. Faith leaders, too, should educate and sensitize their followers in this regard. Promoting positive notions of masculinity, making counseling available, and encouraging effective parenting can go a long way toward preventing online child sex trafficking.

Civil-society groups, meanwhile, must provide social, physical, and psychological support to victims, and can also provide law-enforcement agencies with vital information that strengthens the case against suspected traffickers. Feedback from civil society and service providers (including Internet service providers) can help technology companies, governments, and law-enforcement bodies develop tools to combat online trafficking. NGOs can also play an important role in raising awareness among children, adolescents, and parents about the modus operandi of online child sex traffickers.

Social-networking platforms have a particularly significant role to play. They should prohibit anybody under 18 from entering private chat rooms, and must also strengthen their technical tie-ups with search engines, in order to remove – in real-time – online content featuring child sexual abuse. In addition, digital-payment companies should collaborate with law-enforcement agencies to identify payments being made to buy such material online.

The cooperation between law-enforcement agencies, companies, civil society, faith institutions, health-care providers, and youth organizations should be a true partnership for a child-friendly world. This is in keeping with the spirit of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which emphasize the importance of partnerships in addressing the world’s biggest challenges.

I have been rallying support among world leaders for a binding international law to prevent digital abuse of children and online child trafficking. And all of us fighting online child sexual abuse should share best practices, build on our diverse experiences, foster policies that enable survivors to be agents of change, and provide adequate and timely support services to help victims rebuild their lives.

The centuries-long evolution of science and technology has been a journey to free the human mind. The recent rapid growth of digital technologies similarly holds the promise of greater individual freedom. Yet traffickers and slave masters are using these same tools to shackle and sexually abuse millions of innocent lives for profit. The victims are children – our children – and we must act now to save them.

Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is an honorary President of the Global March Against Child Labour. The article was provided to The Monitor by the project Syndicate, the world’s opinion page.

Editor’s note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of the editorial opinion of EM News.