University of Southern California USC

Future Action for Trafficking Online

Human trafficking via online technologies can be addressed by a variety of actors, including those in government, the private sector, NGOs, service providers, and academia. This section explores possibilities for future action with a focus on cross-sector partnerships.1


Ambassador Luis CdeBaca recently testified, “As important as innovations and partnerships with civil societies are, it remains a core governmental responsibility to fight against modern slavery.”2

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 called for a study specifically focused on the relationship between the Internet and sex trafficking. Section 237(c), on “Reports and Studies,” states: “subject to availability of appropriations, the head of the National Institute of Justice shall conduct … a comprehensive study to examine the use of Internet-based businesses and services by criminal actors in the sex industry, and to disseminate best practices for investigation and prosecution of trafficking and prostitution offenses involving the Internet.”3 However, according to the National Institute of Justice, funds were not appropriated for the study.4 Research studies can inform future policy and action and lead to innovative technologies, which law enforcement and government officials can use in anti-trafficking efforts.

  • Government officials can play an essential role in the response to trafficking online by allocating resources for further research related to sex and labor trafficking in domestic and international contexts.

Enforcement efforts in this space are especially dependent on specialization and expertise that can keep pace with the rapidly changing technologies that can be used to facilitate or combat trafficking. To promote the development of this expertise, additional actions for government officials include:

  • Establishing national-level taskforces on trafficking online and supporting existing regional taskforces with information and capabilities to address trafficking online.
  • Enabling federal and local agencies to develop the technological capabilities to monitor trafficking online and to share information among organizations.

Informing national taskforces and government officials about issues related to technology and trafficking and providing training and skills on how best to use these technologies are inter-related endeavors. Federal and local officials could also work toward coordinating databases and developing platforms for information sharing on trafficking cases. Private-sector expertise could assist these government efforts. As Yury Fedotov, executive director of UNODC, notes, “When it comes to fighting crime there has to be a partnership between the public and the private sectors. Crime prevention and victim protection cannot be achieved by governments or criminal justice systems alone; we need Internet service providers, civil society, the media, educational institutions and the public on board.”5

Private Sector

Under the guiding principles of corporate social responsibility, ISPs and Internet companies have an opportunity to be a part of a collective response to the problem of trafficking in persons. Further, the recent growth of socially conscious consumer trends gives online classifieds and social networking sites an incentive to build client trust in the services they provide.6
As CSR initiatives ultimately depend upon consumers demanding change from companies, individuals are positioned to directly influence private-sector action by calling for online service providers to respond to the issue of human trafficking on their networks.

The notion of technology companies taking steps to respond to social problems was demonstrated during the Egyptian protests of 2011. When ISPs in Egypt blocked public Internet access, reportedly in response to government requests, Twitter and Google partnered to develop a workaround that allowed users to post messages to Twitter via voice messages sent from their mobile phones.7 Yet detection of individuals engaged in human trafficking online is an extremely difficult task for technology firms, requiring the identification of specific behavioral patterns among millions of user transactions. Moreover, traffickers engage in behaviors that purposefully seek to evade detection, thus more advanced tools are required.

ISPs and Internet companies lag behind other key industries in collective efforts to combat human trafficking. The travel and tourism sectors have historically been viewed as critical elements of a trafficker’s operation. Over the years, public pressure has resulted in the development of a range of anti-trafficking campaigns by hotels, restaurants, and common carriers. Among the most notable is the creation of the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children From Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism (the Code).8

The document, developed by members of industry in collaboration with ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes), boasts signatories such as the Carlson Companies, Delta Airlines, the American Society of Travel Agents, Amazon Tours, and many more international service providers. The Code requires signatories to establish ethical policies regarding commercial sexual exploitation of children, train personnel, and provide annual reports.

Coalitions of international political and business leaders have assembled on occasion to highlight the importance of addressing human-rights challenges through responsible business practices. In 2006, CEOs from private-sector companies, along with representatives from governments and NGOs, came together to sign the Athens Ethical Principles to End Human Trafficking and subsequent Luxor Implementation Guidelines to the Athens Ethical Principles.9

Together these documents demand policies, enforcement, and reporting on signatories’ anti-trafficking efforts. In March 2011, the United Nations released a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights 10 to broadly highlight the important role of the private sector in preserving fundamental human rights. These principles include broad categories on “adverse human rights impacts,” which relate to human trafficking. 11

Despite the existence of these documents, there is little oversight for private sector efforts to preserve and protect human rights. As noted by Noeleen Hezzer, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “The private sector needs to play a role because traditional partners such [as] U.N. agencies and law enforcement organizations are no longer able to address the magnitude of [human trafficking].”12

Private-sector media companies have used online communications as part of their awareness campaigns. In 2004, MTV, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development, launched EXIT: End Exploitation and Trafficking, which uses celebrity PSAs, music videos, and live concerts to educate youth on the realities of trafficking.13 The campaign website is available in 31 languages and encourages users to upload their own videos with anti-trafficking messages and to get involved with NGOs in their communities. CNN has brought international attention to the trafficking and slavery issues through its “Freedom Project.”14 Microsoft is another company taking the anti-trafficking message online. The corporation offers e-learning courses, provided by UN.GIFT and the End Human Trafficking Now campaign, on its Middle East website, which help businesses evaluate their potential risks for human trafficking and point out actions that can be taken to address them.15

  • Technology companies can coordinate to create an industry code of conduct to combat trafficking online.
  • Media and technology companies can use their distribution channels and services to increase awareness of trafficking online.16

Companies interested in implementing a CSR policy of preventing human trafficking can attempt to limit illegal activity through their terms of use (or terms of service). The terms of use for each website and service are an important resource for learning the policies and priorities of the various online platforms in popular use.

A review of 12 selected websites,17 including adult-specific sites, assessed whether these sites addressed human trafficking in their terms of use. The review noted the available reporting mechanisms, as well as any resources offered to ensure the Internet safety of users. Backpage specifically mentions human trafficking in its terms of use, while Facebook prohibits registered sex offenders from using its site. While some sites specifically describe child pornography and prostitution as prohibited content, other adult-specific sites only mention the restriction of minors to the site. Backpage has the most direct language, prohibiting “posting any solicitation directly or in ‘coded’ fashion for any illegal service exchanging sexual favors for money or other valuable consideration.”18

Backpage also has a disclaimer page that opens when a user enters any category in the Adult section, requesting that the user report suspected cases of child exploitation or human trafficking and providing a link to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But all these provisions are inadequate if users are not reporting, or if responses from the ISPs are not timely and effective.

  • Technology companies can include language in their terms of service prohibiting any activity related to trafficking in persons.
  • Companies can make the terms of service prominently visible on their sites and empower conscientious consumers to police the sites they visit daily.

Private-sector cooperation with law enforcement is one way to bring successful prosecutions of trafficking. As Secretary of State Clinton recently noted, “Criminal justice and law enforcement organizations should not only enforce existing anti-trafficking laws, but refine their methods to fight modern slavery in order to keep up with an evolving understanding of the crime.” 19 In order to keep pace with the rapidly changing methods of online communications, law enforcement needs the support of the private sector.

Some companies have a notable record of cooperating with law enforcement and supporting anti-trafficking work. Myspace is recognized as being particularly helpful in efforts to protect vulnerable users by working with the appropriate agencies internationally. Myspace representatives “work with local police and investigators regarding user activity and interface … with law enforcement agencies at local, state, and federal levels. Myspace personnel have met with law enforcement officials from around the world to find out how Myspace can enhance its cooperation with law enforcement and increase user security.”20 Partnerships between the private sector and law enforcement must also be mindful of citizens’ civil rights.

  • Companies can provide efficient mechanisms for public authorities to access actionable information related to trafficking in persons.

The massive amounts of information found online are far too large for law enforcement to analyze in any meaningful way with its current tools. While “the private sector routinely analyses this data in real-time to drive critical business decisions, the public sector has barely begun to come to terms with this new world of big data.”21 The United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative, which collects data for indicators of potential international conflict, has recognized that “the analytical tools and approaches used in the private sector need to be repurposed to detect the ‘digital smoke signals’ in the data.”22 Responses to criminal activity using online technologies depend upon new and constantly updated data-gathering tools, along with careful attention to individual rights, particularly the rights of privacy and freedom of expression.23 To further this goal, the progress and innovation of the private sector can support efforts in the public sector. For example, the DNA Foundation convened a task force of key technology companies in March 2010 that meets quarterly to develop and implement innovative solutions to child sexual exploitation.24

  • Technology companies and developers can create more innovative solutions for detecting and disrupting human trafficking on their networks and assume a more proactive role in advancing research in this area. 

Nongovernmental Organizations

NGOs span a broad range of research, advocacy, and service providers that already play active roles in anti-trafficking efforts. Many of these organizations work directly with trafficking victims and thus can play a crucial role in understanding how technology can be applied to anti-trafficking efforts. Because victims and survivors should be considered the ultimate beneficiaries of technological interventions in human trafficking, expert knowledge of their needs should be part of any innovation, development, and implementation process. Feedback from NGOs and service providers should be an important resource for technology companies, government, and law enforcement in developing anti-trafficking tools. Questions that NGOs and service providers can help answer include:

  • How can technology be used to connect with and empower victims and vulnerable populations, while also addressing their economic, social, psychological, and physical needs?
  • How can technologies be used to improve the collection of data on trafficking and the sharing of information resources?

In addition to using technology to improve services and support, NGOs could seek innovative tools for information sharing and cooperation between organizations. Writing about a recent project in Cambodia, the Asia Foundation noted: “There is currently very little sharing of information due to the wide distribution of NGOs addressing the problem, the difficulty of communications in remote areas, low levels of information technology capacity in anti-trafficking groups, and the hesitancy to share sensitive information over insecure channels.”25

NGOs should coordinate among themselves and pursue licensing agreements that will allow them to use technological solutions for information sharing in order to coordinate and further their anti-trafficking activities.

As noted above, the CCLP project in the Mekong Subregion is pursuing this possibility, identifying technologies that will help link victims directly to service providers and also help NGOs coordinate better among themselves and with other groups and agencies. Coordinating the various trafficking telephone hotlines is another example of developing partnerships around technology.

  • NGOs and service providers should consider searching for common ground in order to utilize technological tools that support improved communication and information sharing among individuals and groups.

Nongovernmental organizations often struggle to acquire and maintain information and communication technologies due to high prices for the products themselves and the costs of training personnel. Partnerships with technology companies that result in licensing products for low or no fees, including technological support, would be a helpful step.

Academic and Research Community

Members of the academic community are in a unique position to bring together the efforts of various sectors and analyze the effectiveness of technology as applied to various organizations. Academics bring the necessary methodological and technical skills to address and evaluate many of the research questions among government, law enforcement, the private sector, and NGOs. Some disciplines have a history of studying human trafficking and slavery issues, such as law, social work, psychology, and sociology. Other fields, such as computer science, information science, engineering, and communication research, bring a unique added value to questions concerning human trafficking and Internet technologies.

The research conducted above has already raised several new issues and topics for future studies. Research questions that have emerged or remain unanswered include:

  • Can online technologies be used to monitor and disrupt the demand side of sex trafficking?
  • Can online language-translation technologies be used to assist international human trafficking victims?
  • How might offline trafficking behaviors manifest themselves in online messages?
  • Can technologies designed to detect sex trafficking be used to detect labor trafficking?
  • Do individual and small-time criminals use online technology differently than organized crime syndicates?
  • Do potential traffickers and clients using mainstream social media sites differ from those using more underground sites, forums, and chatrooms?
  • What is the role of online technology in victim rehabilitation, recovery and/or recidivism?
    • Can online technologies be used for rehabilitation efforts?
    • Can online technologies be exploited by traffickers to reconnect with recovering victims, leading to recidivism?
  • How can social networking sites be used to identify and assist potential victims or potential runaways (e.g., children in abusive homes)?
  • How will Internet-enabled mobile devices affect trafficking in persons?
  • How can technologies that are designed to monitor and disrupt trafficking incorporate protections for privacy and freedom of expression?

Funding for research can be obtained from a variety of university, government, foundation, NGO, and private-sector sources. The process of producing research and holding conferences that involve input from all of these actors is in itself a way to engender and establish cross-sector collaboration.

The innovations identified in this report have the potential to be used by various actors in anti-trafficking efforts. Technological interventions in anti-trafficking may fall into one or more of the following categories: (1) technology that disrupts behaviors that underpin the trafficking trade, (2) technology that helps anti-trafficking groups to cooperate, and (3) technology used to create public awareness and/or provide support for victims and survivors of trafficking. To that end, the following principles are intended for those seeking to employ technology as a means to combat human trafficking:


  1. The recently introduced Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011 includes a new section titled “Creating, building, and strengthening partnerships against significant trafficking in persons.” The purpose of the section includes promoting cooperation between the federal government and the private sector to ensure that: “(1) United States citizens do not use any item, product, or material produced or extracted with the use and labor from victims of severe forms of trafficking; and (2) such entities do not contribute to trafficking in persons involving sexual exploitation.” Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2011, S. 1301, 112th Cong. (2011). ^
  2. Best Practices and Next Steps: A New Decade in the Fight Against Human Trafficking, Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, June 13, 2011 (testimony of Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons). ^
  3. William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-457, 122 Stat. 5044, December 23, 2008. ^
  4. John Picarelli, social science analyst, National Institute of Justice, personal communication with CCLP research staff, March 24, 2011. ^
  5. “Crime Commission to address protection of children from exploitation on the Web,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, April 11, 2011, ^
  6. danah m. boyd, “How Censoring Craigslist Helps Pimps, Child Traffickers, and Other Abusive Scumbags,” Huffington Post, September 6, 2010, ^
  7. Charles Arthur, “Google and Twitter launch service enabling Egyptians to tweet by phone,” Guardian, February 1, 2011, ^
  8. “,” last accessed June 27, 2011, The initiative is collaboration with ECPAT International funded by UNICEF and supported by UNWTO. ^
  9. End Human Trafficking Now, Campaign of the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement, Luxor Implementation Guidelines to the Athens Ethical Principles: Comprehensive Compliance Programme for Businesses, 2006. ^
  10. John Ruggie, “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework,” Human Rights Council, 17th Session, March 21, 2011. ^
  11. The guidelines state that business are to “(a) Avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities, and address such impacts when they occur; (b) Seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” Ibid. ^
  12. Ron Corben, “U.N. Urges Businesses to Aid Fight Against Human Trafficking,” Voice of America News, July 26, 2011, ^
  13. “MTV EXIT: End Exploitation and Trafficking,” last accessed June 27, 2011, ^
  14.  The CNN Freedom Project: Ending Modern Day Slavery,” last accessed August 15, 2011, ^
  15. “Join the Fight to End Human Trafficking,” Microsoft, last accessed June 27, 2011, ^
  16. Leaders from the technology world also can play an important role in promoting anti-trafficking efforts. For example, Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, has emerged as a leader in the anti-trafficking arena, speaking at events such as the Not For Sale campaign. “NFS News Archive Jack Dorsey,” Not For Sale, last accessed July 29, 2011, ^
  17. Websites included Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Craigslist, Oodle, Backpage, Friendster, Google Groups, My Red Book, World Sex Guide, Eros, and My Provider Guide. ^
  18. “Terms of Use,”, last updated May 18, 2010, ^
  19. Hillary Rodham Clinton, “The fight against human trafficking: Moving toward a decade of delivery,” Miami Herald, June 28, 2011, ^
  20. Kim-Kwang Raymond Choo, “Online child grooming: A literature review on the misuse of social networking sites for grooming children for sexual offences,” Australian Institute of Criminology Research and Public Policy Series 103, 2009, 66. ^
  21. “About,” U.N. Global Pulse, last accessed June 27, 2011, ^
  22. Ibid. ^
  23. Privacy and freedom of expression policies could be informed by the principles established by the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of leading information, technology, and communications companies, human rights groups, academics, and others. See “Principles,” Global Network Initiative, last accessed July 29, 2011, ^
  24. DNA Foundation, “Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher Launch ‘Real Men’ Campaign to Help End Child Sex Slavery,” press release, September
    23, 2010, ^
  25. “Utilizing Information Technology to Address Human Trafficking,” the Asia Foundation, n.d., ^