University of Southern California USC

Current Federal and State Policy on Technology and Trafficking

“We’re turning the tables on the traffickers. Just as they are now using technology and the Internet to exploit their victims, we’re going to harness technology to stop them. We’re encouraging tech companies and advocates and law enforcement—and we’re also challenging college students—to develop tools that our young people can use to stay safe online and on their smart phones.”

—President Barack Obama, September 25, 2012

On September 25, 2012, President Barack Obama delivered a widely anticipated speech at the Clinton Global Initiative’s Annual Meeting. He described human trafficking as one of the most pressing “human rights issues of our times,”[1] noting that it demands U.S. and global attention. He further detailed his administration’s efforts to bolster anti-trafficking responses, which included initiatives focused on leveraging technology to curb trafficking.[2] To this end, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Women and Girls have convened a group of anti-trafficking experts, including advocates, law enforcement, technology companies, and researchers, with the explicit purposes of improving information-sharing efforts among law enforcement, improving training efforts, and utilizing online and mobile technologies to assist victims.[3] President Obama’s speech was significant in broadly recognizing the role that technology plays in facilitating trafficking and drawing attention to its importance in effectively addressing the issue.

Although Congress has not approved the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 (TVPRA) as of this report’s publication, the TVPRA could initiate federal action on technology-facilitated trafficking, as well as the utilization of technology in combating human trafficking. Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) successfully added an amendment to the House’s version of the TVPRA requiring the Senior Policy Operating Group established by the 2000 TVPA to report to Congress on Internet-facilitated human trafficking.[4] The report would include a statistical analysis of federal agency data, factors affecting the pervasiveness of Internet-facilitated trafficking, and challenges to prevention and prosecution. Additional elements of the report include proposals encompassing collaboration between government and private organizations, improved information sharing, and the adoption of new laws, policies, and  technologies.[5] The Senate version of the TVPRA also focuses on the use of technology to combat trafficking. Technological advancements would be spotlighted by the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts and Technological Innovations to Combat Trafficking in Persons.[6] Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) also included a provision requiring the task force to provide federal agencies with the necessary information to publicize the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline on their websites.[7]

According to a 2012 comparison of human trafficking laws in all U.S. states and Washington, D.C,[8] all but Wyoming[9] have criminalized trafficking; however, few states have enacted laws that address the role of technology in facilitating and disrupting human trafficking. In order to assist trafficking victims through the use of technology, Maryland[10] and Vermont[11] require their state Departments of Labor to post the NHTRC hotline information on their websites. A few other states require businesses to post signs with a trafficking hotline number (Texas,[12] Vermont,[13] and Washington[14]), and Oklahoma is statutorily required to establish a trafficking hotline.[15] Finally, Hawaii,[16] Maryland,[17] and Ohio[18] have authorized electronic surveillance of suspected traffickers.[19]

A challenge for legislatures is finding a uniform way to define the technologies used to facilitate trafficking in an era of rapid change. Some state legislatures have enacted laws criminalizing the use of technology in the sexual exploitation of a minor. Though most laws on the sexual exploitation of minors target the use of computers to either provide or solicit a minor for sex, the definitions of technology-assisted exploitation vary. Most of these laws acknowledge that technology has moved beyond computers and have expanded the law’s reach to “any other device capable of electronic data storage.”[20] Virginia appears to be the only state explicitly including “any common carrier or communication common carrier … or any telecommunications, wire, computer network, or radio communication systems” in its statutes.[21]

Other state laws specifically target those who solicit sex from a minor through any electronic means.[22] Definitions of “electronic means” vary from state to state. Montana focuses on the content and transmission system by defining “electronic communication” as a “sign, signal, writing, image, sound, data, or intelligence transmitted or created in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic, or photo-optical system.”[23] Pennsylvania defines “computer” as “an electronic, magnetic, optical, hydraulic, organic or other high-speed data processing device or system which performs logic, arithmetic or memory functions and includes all input, output, processing, storage, software or communication facilities which are connected or related to the device in a computer system or computer network.”[24] Louisiana prohibits anyone 17 or older from knowingly contacting a minor for the purpose of sex via “electronic textual communication,” which is “made through the use of a computer on-line [sic] service, Internet service, or any other means of electronic communication, including but not limited to a local bulletin board service, Internet chat room, electronic mail, or on-line [sic] messaging service.”[25] While both Montana and Louisiana pinpoint the form that communication might take, a loophole exists for non-textual contact in Louisiana’s statute.[26]

In the past year, Louisiana passed HB 55, prohibiting sex offenders, including those convicted of DMST, from accessing chat rooms, social networking sites, and peer-to-peer networks. However, this law was struck down as unconstitutional and over-broad in its definition of networking sites.[27] In response, Louisiana passed three new laws, effective August 1, 2012. HB 556 requires sex offenders to provide law enforcement with changes to email and online user/screen names within three business days of the change.[28] HB 249 requires sex offenders to post notice of their convictions on “networking websites” [29] that allow profile pages, photos, and the ability to send and receive messages.[30] HB 620 limits the earlier HB 55 prohibitions to only social networking websites, “the primary purpose of which is facilitating social interaction with other users of the website” and that allow users to create profiles and communicate.[31] Because the language is limited to websites allowing users to create web pages or profiles, some social media applications are excluded. Specifically excluded are Internet websites that (1) only provide email, instant messaging, or photo sharing; (2) have a primary purpose of facilitating commercial transactions; or (3) have a primary purpose of disseminating news.[32] While HB 620 narrowed the bans proposed by HB 55, it has still received criticism as possibly violating sex offenders’ rights.[33] As will be discussed below, the diffusion of trafficking across multiple technological platforms may limit the long-term usefulness of such legislation.

In addition to legislative initiatives, state executive agencies have begun to address technology and human trafficking. Notably, the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris co-convened a meeting on technology and human trafficking with CCLP, announced a joint program between Yahoo! and Polaris Project in which a banner with the NHTRC hotline number is displayed when a Yahoo! user searches the keywords “human trafficking”, and offers a widget on her website that, when downloaded to a private website, displays the Polaris Project/NHTRC banner.[34]

In the past year, California has been active in anti-trafficking legislation. The Transparency in Supply Chains Act (CA Transparency Act) went into effect in January 2012 and requires retailers and manufacturers with more than $100 million in annual gross sales to post compliance efforts on their corporate websites.[35] As a disclosure statute, the CA Transparency Act requires companies to reveal whether they have undertaken efforts to evaluate risks of human trafficking in their supply chains, to audit suppliers to ensure they meet corporate standards, to require direct suppliers to certify that products meet the trafficking laws of the countries where the products are produced, and to train employees on human trafficking.[36]

On November 6, 2012, the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE) Act was overwhelmingly voted into law. The California law will increase victim restitutions and impose harsher sentencing for labor or sex traffickers. Convicted sex traffickers will be required to register as sex offenders and provide law enforcement with their Internet identifiers and service providers.[37] Any changes will have to be reported within 24 hours.[38] An Internet identifier is defined as any email address or user/screen name used to conduct Internet forum or chat-room discussions, instant messaging, or social networking.[39] An Internet service provider is defined as a business allowing users the ability to access the Internet and explicitly does not include services providing only telecommunication, cable, or video.[40]

[1]               President Barack Obama (September 25, 2012) Remarks by the president to the Clinton Global Initiative, New York, NY.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               Ibid.

[4]               Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011, H.R. 3589, 112th Cong. (2011).

[5]               Ibid.

[6]               Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011, S. 1301, 112th Cong. (2011).

[7]               Wyden, R. (n.d.) Sex Trafficking. Retrieved from

[8]               2012 State Reports, Polaris Project. Retrieved August 13, 2012, from

[9]              As of the publication of this report, Wyoming has no state laws against human trafficking. Attorney General Greg Phillips and assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Wyoming believe state anti-trafficking legislature is unnecessary because “there is good cooperation between prosecutors and law enforcement at the federal and local levels to successfully pursue human trafficking cases in Wyoming.” Hancock, L. “New report slams Wyoming for lack of human trafficking law.” Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) is drafting a bill to provide immunity from prosecution for crimes committed by trafficking victims while in captivity, such as prostitution, drug possession, and trespassing. The Billings Gazette – Montana & Wyoming News. n.p., August 20, 2012. Web. August 23, 2012.

[10]             Md. Code Ann. § 15-207 (S.B. 542).

[11]             13 V.S.A. § 2661 (H.B. 153).

[12]             Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 125.045 (S.B. 1288).

[13]             13 V.S.A. § 2661 (S.B. 153).

[14]             Wash. Rev. Code § 47.38.080 (S.B. 6330).

[15]             21A O.S. § 748.2 (S.B. 2258).

[16]             Haw. Rev. Stat. § 803-44 (H.B. 141).

[17]             Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 10.402 (H.B. 345).

[18]             Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 2933.51 et. seq. (S.B. 235).

[19]             If passed, California’s CASE Act (described below) would also authorize electronic surveillance.

[20]             Florida: Fla. Stat. § 847.0135. Also see, Georgia: Ga. Code Ann. § 16-12-100.2 (“other electronic device”); Kentucky: Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 510.155 (“any other electronic means”); North Carolina: N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-202.3 (“device capable of electronic data storage or transmission”); Texas: Tex. Penal Code § 33.021 (“over the Internet, by electronic mail or text message or other electronic message service or system, or through commercial online service”).

[21]             Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-374.3.

[22]             See Maryland: Md. Crim. Code § 3-324; Minnesota: Minn. Stat. § 609.352.

[23]             Mont. Code Ann. § 45-5-625.

[24]             18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 6318.

[25]             La. Rev. Stat. § 14:81.3.

[26]             As Mitchell, Jones, Finkelhor, and Wolak (2011) have noted, the use of video communications in online sex crimes involving minors has increased, accounting for 27% of incidents in 2006

[27]             Doe v. Jindal, No. 11-554-BAJ-SCR, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19841 (M.D. La. Feb. 16, 2012).

[28]             La. Rev. Stat. § 15:542.

[29]             Several of these websites, such as Facebook and MySpace, already prohibit sex offenders from using their platforms.

[30]             La. Rev. Stat. § 15.542.1(D). A New Jersey state senator is offering a similar bill, S-2142, with an identical counterpart to be introduced in the state assembly.

[31]             La. Rev. Stat. § 14:91.5.

[32]             Ibid.

[33]             Sex offenders fight for right to use Facebook (May 30, 2012) Retrieved from

[34]             Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Teams with Yahoo! and Polaris Project to Fight Human Trafficking, Help Victims Online (June 18, 2012) Office of the Attorney General. Retrieved from

[35]             Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.43; Cal. Tax Code § 19547.5 (S.B. 657).

[36]             Ibid.

[37]             Amending Cal. Penal Code § 290.014(b). Retrieved from

[38]             Ibid.

[39]             Adding Cal. Penal Code § 290.024. Retrieved from

[40]             Ibid.