University of Southern California USC


Human Trafficking

As noted in the CCLP 2011 report, the definition of human trafficking varies under different assumptions, laws, and agendas.[1] For the purposes of this report, the terms “human trafficking” and “trafficking in persons” will refer to the definition of “severe forms of trafficking in persons” set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) under U.S. federal law.

 The TVPA[2] defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

(A) sex trafficking[3] in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or
(B) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.[4]

This report uses the TVPA’s definition, with the understanding that the terminology surrounding human trafficking is a contested arena. While we acknowledge the complexity of definitional debates, this study utilizes the terms human trafficking, trafficking in persons, sex trafficking, and labor trafficking as defined above.

Technology-Facilitated Trafficking

By “technology,” we refer to information and communication technologies, particularly those constituting digital and networked environments. Technologies that allow users to exchange digital information over networks include the Internet, online social networks, and mobile phones. Digital and networked technology alters the flow of information between people and thus impact social interactions, practices, and behavior. For example, online technologies allow users to communicate instantaneously with other individuals and potentially large audiences over vast distances and across geographic boundaries. An increasing amount of our social life is mediated by computers and digital networks—from the mundane aspects of everyday life to the most pressing social issues of our time. In this respect, networked technologies can influence and change social behavior. At the same time, social practices can shape how technologies are used, often in unintended ways.

Technology-facilitated trafficking refers to the social and technical ecosystem wherein individuals use information and communication technologies to engage in human trafficking and related behaviors. Digital and networked technologies impact visibility, coordination, transaction, exchange, and organization. These technologies therefore can impact various aspects of trafficking, from grooming, recruitment, and control of victims, to advertising, movement, and financial transactions. An understanding of how technology is facilitating trafficking is a crucial component for counter-trafficking efforts in the 21st century.

A Note on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking and Related Terms

This report primarily focuses on the sex trafficking of minors in the United States. Under the TVPA, persons under 18 cannot legally consent to commercial sex acts, and thus are automatically identified as victims of sex trafficking.

This report expressly focuses on sex trafficking of minors, or youth under 18 years old. We recognize, however, that discussions about sex trafficking generally, opens up various debates about the legal, social, and moral aspects of prostitution in society. We do not intend to conflate the sex trafficking of minors and adults with consensual adult prostitution, nor do we aim to collapse these distinct socio-legal phenomena. The terms “prostitution” and “sex work” conjure varied opinions, including the view that adult women, men, and transgender individuals may choose to engage in sex work. This view contrasts to the perspective that prostitution is exploitative and demonstrative of underlying gender inequalities. For some, terms “pimp” and “exploiter” and “john” and “client are similarly contested in light the roles and relationships of supply and demand involved in commercial sex or sexual exploitation. The contested and highly nuanced debates surrounding prostitution and sex trafficking and the language deployed to describe individuals’ experiences of choice, circumstance, and coercion are critically important, yet far too complex to be given adequate treatment in this report. We therefore limit our focus and use the terms domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST), commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and sex trafficking of youth under 18 interchangeably.

We also recognize the importance of research on labor trafficking; however, few studies to date have comprehensively explored how technology contributes to forced labor practices. Because of limited data on labor trafficking and technology, and the more widespread attention and therefore higher visibility of sex trafficking across digital networks, this report will focus primarily on technology-facilitated DMST. A clear knowledge gap exists in evidence-based research that examines the nexus of technology, labor trafficking, and forced labor practices, and we encourage further research in this area.

[1]               CCLP 2011 report, p. 10.

[2]               The first Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed in 2000. The act was updated and reauthorized in 2003, 2005, and 2008. and was scheduled for reauthorization in 2011. As of the publishing of this report, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2011 has not been passed by Congress.

[3]              Under the 2008 TVPRA, “sex trafficking” is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” This definition of sex trafficking is identical in the 2000 TVPA and 2008 TVPRA.

[4]               Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, 22 U.S.C. § 7102 (October 28, 2000), as amended.