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Experts Turn To Technology To Fight Human Trafficking

Sara Lerner

For more than a year now, Washington officials have been urging the online classifieds site, backpage,com, to do more to fight child–sex trafficking. Both sides agree, underage victims get forced into prostitution and sold on by pimps. But they don't agree on how to deal with it.

The ongoing scuffle has morphed beyond public speeches and official letters and into the federal courts. As KUOW's Sara Lerner reports, this dispute is about child–sex trafficking, but also technology.


First, let's understand the issue from someone close to it. Here's Nacole, a mom:

Nacole: "She left a note with a friend to give me after track practice saying that she needed to find herself. She was then missing for 10 days."

Nacole is describing what happened when her daughter was a 15–year–old high school freshman, in the Seattle area. She came back that first time. But then, she left again.

Nacole: "Three months later, she was lured out of the house by someone she met on the streets and within 36 hours she was being posted on, subsequently for the next 108 days."

How is it that her daughter really just couldn't walk away? Nacole says the pimp was 32, manipulative and used physical abuse. Plus, her daughter was in love with him. Nacole says she's doing better now and she's safe.

Nacole joined the Seattle mayor, state senators and the state attorney general in calling for to do more to stop human trafficking. She even helped write Senate Bill 6251, which created a new law that goes after online publishers like It holds them accountable if underage users on their site are caught posting an ad for sex, or if a pimp is posting for a person who's underage.

Backpage sued Washington state, saying a federal act protects online publishers like backpage — and Facebook and YouTube — from being responsible for what third party users do on their sites.

The online free speech advocacy organization, Electronic Frontier Foundation, is also suing Washington state making the same argument that a state can't rewrite fundamental rules about the Internet.

Meanwhile, there's another group of people working on these same issues with the same goals: the tech sphere.

boyd: "Do I think that we can solve it? No. Unfortunately, I don't think that we can solve it. Do I think that we can make it rarer? Yes."

danah boyd (preferred presentation of her name) is a researcher at Microsoft. She works with exploited youth in her research and has become an expert on sex trafficking online.

boyd: "It's awful! And the thing is, is that you're talking about people who are mentally struggling. They need a lot of emotional support. They need a lot of help."

Her method? Tackle the problem by gathering more data.

In Redmond last week, at a conference in Microsoft's research department, boyd put together a panel to tell computer scientists about online sex trafficking and also to make a pitch to them.

boyd: "What we have today for you is actually four different speakers who are going to talk about different parts of their research, different parts of their approach to understanding this sort of challenging issue, with the hope of actually enticing those who are more computationally minded in the room to work with us to start to address the puzzle."

The puzzle of human trafficking online and how little she says we know about it. In research terms, she sees it as a vast, unexplored terrain. Like, how do we detect an abusive image? How do we track people who buy sex online? Boyd explains:

boyd: "Can we make it risky to do those searches? Right, so can you, can you turn around and say 'Hey! What are you looking for?' And you start to give warning signs of like, 'Hey, we see you.' Right?"

For example, a warning box would pop up when someone who's interested in buying sex online does a search for it.

boyd: "... And that means that you know if it's me doing the search because I'm doing it for research purposes, I'll be like 'Ha! Nice ad.' But those are the kinds of things we can imagine, doing a disruption."

She says there's so much more out there. She's excited to give computer scientists problems she says they can "munch on" and come up with new ideas she hasn't even thought of. In fact, she helped put together a Microsoft project which funded six academic researchers to gather this kind of data. They'll interview people who have bought sex from underage youth. They'll talk to the victims.

Meanwhile, there's Nacole, the mom. She isn't focused on the long term. She wants Backpage to find a solution, now.

Nacole: "I can order a pizza in 10 minutes. I can then get on a website like and I can order a girl in the same 10 minutes, and have her delivered to my home if that's what I choose. And that is, to me, absolutely ridiculous."

Lawmakers continue to duke out Washington's in–person age verification law in the courts. And as Nacole keeps campaigning and boyd seeks more data, teenagers are still being exploited. Seattle police say they've recovered 26 underage victims just in 2012.

US Judge Ricardo Martinez heard arguments in the joint Backpage/Internet Archive case against Washington state on Friday. He says he hopes to have a decision by the end of this week.

I'm Sara Lerner, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW