By: Amanda K. Fox
Human trafficking is not a problem that is relegated to third world nations. It is a practice that is alive and well in industrialized nations as well, particularly in the US and Europe. Estimates from the US State Department TIPR place the number of persons being trafficked worldwide as potentially being as high as 27 million. Not all trafficking is in minors or women, however the underground sex trade industry is heavily reliant on having a ready supply of young women and girls that can be as young as eight years old. Often, these young women are secured in one country and illegally transported to another where they are enslaved.
While what trafficked persons are used for upon delivery and how they are skirted into and out of countries may differ greatly, there are two constants: Money is the motivator and the Internet is considered the single greatest facilitator of human trafficking ever known to humanity. In the early fall of 1995, less than 400 websites listed them self as being connected to the legal sex trade industry. Primarily, these were sites that did little more than advertise strip clubs or erotic services such as phone sex lines. A year later, the number of sites doing this had quadrupled. Today, sites appear and disappear so quickly, as well as many that intentionally mislead their true purpose, it is nearly impossible to have an accurate count as to how many sex trade related sites are online.
Craigslist was long considered one the ultimate destinations for sex traffickers in the US because anonymity was possible and there was little if any oversight or enforcement. New proxy accounts could be created instantaneously. Coded wording such as “300 roses per hour” allowed many to circumvent suspicious eyes. After a number of legal complaints and stings that focused on Craigslist, adult services ads were pulled – but they still exist. Now they are presented differently in other sections such as activity partners with code words to tip those in the know off to what was really being offered. Backpage.com has met a similar fate after it was exposed they ran an advertisement featuring a 15 year old girl that was trafficked, enslaved, sodomized, drugged, gang raped and then prostituted.
As big as those threats are, the real problem regarding online sex trafficking is Google – specifically the abuse of Google AdWords. With changes to the way webmasters can use their AdWords accounts, via the availability of 3 million keywords and 200,000 ad groups, there is the potential to link to Google 600 million different ways. US Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Marsha Blackburn have sent Google a bipartisan letter which calls their oversight of how AdWords is being used in regard to human trafficking into question.
A long standing complaint has been that so long as a CPC campaign is being paid for, Google tends to look the other way unless legally compelled to investigate. Traffickers tend to use surreptitious methods to misdirect search traffic to avoid words that send up warning flags. A popular tactic that has been exposed is using certain words connected to children that are slightly misspelled. Once these words make their way through the underground world of the Internet, those on the consumer side of the human trafficking industry can easily search for and find the exact type of sites that serve their illicit purposes.
Google, for their part, is funding 10 organizations worldwide with $11.5m USD to combat human trafficking. Considering, however, that it is estimated that human trafficking is a billion dollar a year industry and that Google has ad revenue of over $36.5 billion and growing, a common complaint is that the money they are giving away to fight human trafficking doesn’t even scratch the surface of the total amount they generate through ads that are directly related to the practice. It has also been pointed out that since Google began funding these organizations including but not limited to Call + Response and the Polaris Project, none have so much as questioned the role Google plays in human trafficking worldwide.
From Congresswomen Marsha Blackburn and Carolyn Maloney’s letter to Google:
“These are our daughters, their schoolmates, and their friends; everyone — every company — must understand the reality: that sex trafficking is the slavery of the 21st century,”
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