Monday, October 14, 2013
On a recent trip to a foreign country, I had the opportunity to meet with a leading law enforcement official of a major city who provided a glimpse into a typical “global ground zero” problem – a poverty racked slum area where drugs and sex intersect with the vulnerable poor of the world. This location was one of countless other locations around the globe that are incubators feeding organized crime and terror. Here, the buildings were ramshackle, itinerant men and woman, mostly young, mingled about in the shadows as drug and sex were sold in a virtual open market environment. From a security camera we were able to observe in a matter of moments a potentially violent sexual act about to occur in a public area. Police were called in and the two were arrested. But this small incident is one of hundreds occurring every day. Law enforcement can do little but standby and contain the area and address only the most egregious of situations. In that moment, I had a realization. These areas of abject poverty are merely a reflection of a greater disturbing global reality. This city in a far-away place was connected to the US, and we connected to it in profound ways. It is the money generated from the sale of illicit drugs, human trafficking and pornography that is undoubtedly financing the continuing growth of increasingly complex and interconnected global criminal and terror organizations. These organizations have worldwide reach and shadow connectivity through the power of the internet. Perhaps this is not a major revelation given that it has been printed elsewhere, but it takes on a new meaning when directly faced with the reality of poverty from the eyes of law enforcement. For most, slums are not areas visited by tourists, and in most instances great efforts are made to keep tourists from “unsafe” areas and likewise to keep inhabitants of these from secure tourism areas. This is done for good reason, but in another way it does a great disservice because it hides from the eyes of the well to do the reality of the rising criminal exploitation of global poverty. Simply put, whether it is drugs, prostitution or pornography, these seemingly victimless vices are hardly that. They are fed by the exploitation of the poor at ground zero.
After my visit, I conducted a few simple Google Searches. The first search was the name of the subject country plus the search term “woman”. This search returned numerous “dating” and “marriage” sites aimed at foreigners. It seemed rather obvious that these sites, for the most part, were thin veneers for sex tourism. Any business man or tourist on a visit could seemingly be easily arranged with a young woman for a “date”. I next conducted a search with the country name in question coupled with the not overly explicit term for a woman’s chest – a rather basic search that would be performed by any overly inquisitive male youth in Anytown, USA. Google images returned literally thousands of explicit images most of which were considerably more graphic than the search term implied. A quick review of the search displayed several disturbing things. A subjective assessment of the first two pages of Google’s image returns suggested that as many as 20% of the images could contain young woman of questionable age – meaning a reasonable person might question whether the subject’s age is over majority or the images were intended to convey youthfulness. [Notably, Google has listed several image removals in the return footer, but by clicking on the notice, all were for DCMA copyright violations…from other image owners].
Following one Google return image with a young woman and a man in an explicit act, Google forwarded me to a web site which purported to be a blog. The site titles were explicit and referred to “teens” from the geographic area in question. I chose not to investigate any further. Rather, I chose to pursue the underlying blog platform provider. But as I encountered this, it became clear that young woman throughout the world offer an endless supply of victims for this insidious industry and the poor are incredibly vulnerable. [Editor Note: After a lot of researching to find a way to report objectionable material to Google, I found that the Google linked to the National Center for Missing Children (NCMC) -http://www.missingkids.com/home. I did report my concerns about the site in question. But, this editor wonders why it is so difficult to report offensive images. I discuss this further below.]
Beyond the presence of the material on the blog, the blog itself struck me for what is was in relation to the problem at hand. It is a rapid web page creating, editing and posting technology that provides a means to pump out illicit materials quickly and make them globally available in an instant. Once out on the internet, images are copied, reposted and linked to in many ways, and automated search engine crawlers quickly find, index and make them available in search returns. A review of the underlying sex blog platform revealed it was created several years ago, and its express aim is to allow for the rapid creation of sex oriented blog sites which cannot be created or maintained on popular blog sites (A simple footer at the bottom of the blog site contains a button to report complaints, at best a token effort to avoid complicity with those spawning pornography). This blog platform is likely one of a great number available. While blogging technology is no longer deemed cutting edge, a glimpse into the power of technology is offered in its ability to enable large scale illicit activities with relative ease. With new social technologies like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram which allow photos and videos to be posted immediately to the internet and subscribers to view them, the power to proliferate pornography is virtually unlimited and uncontrollable. In a recent conversation with a board member of a private Christian school and I was shocked to learn that there was a problem with 6th graders and “selfies”. Apparently, there were a large number of young girls sending out unsuitable photos of themselves to friends using Instagram. One would expect a Christian private school to be an environment that encourages self-control, moral behavior and boundaries, but the presence of internet connected camera phones makes it so easy to produce explicit photos and share them, there are no longer any barriers and in their absence even those inculcated with morals and ethics feel free and empowered to abandon them.
It would seem axiomatic that for every woman exploited on the internet, there are equal or greater numbers still that are being abused through local prostitution, sex tourism, and human trafficking. The presence of drugs serves to addict, undermine and enslave the poor, not only taking what little money they have but serving as vehicle to a criminal lifestyles controlled by their masters in exchange for the next fix. For other innocents, the entry into this world is not their own doing. They are forcibly taken or fraudulently induced into captivity through friends and associates working on behalf of local criminals often connect to larger criminal enterprises. Often, the prospects of apparently legitimate employment opportunities in the hospitality and retail industry are used to attract low skilled workers only to find out later there is no real job and they are to be held against their will and placed into prostitution. Using the stigma of sex slavery and also illegal immigrant status, these young victims feel trapped in hopelessness, being ashamed to contact family and friends and afraid to contact law enforcement.
So, what can we make of this? The notion that pornography and illegal drugs are victimless crimes seems to be fundamentally wrong. There is a clear nexus between criminal drug activity, sex crimes and pornography. Where one is, the other is likely to be found. The sources of these victims are found in places of poverty around the globe. The victimization is global in nature not only because the internet allows for global distribution, but because internet connectivity and global commerce enables affiliations of criminal and terror groups that can work in concert over large distances. The means, methods and opportunities are all present with little to no barriers, and detection is difficult.
With respect to the United States, the demand and use of illegal drugs and the unlimited access to pornography and ability to shop for prostitutes via the internet serves to fuel these destructive organizations. The internet has placed the poor in far-away places in the cross hairs of web sites and search engines and there are plenty of bad actors willing to exploit this at the expense of the ultimate victims - the poor, young and helpless trapped in grinding poverty.
While efforts have been focused on making voluntary search filters available to users, it seems that the problem is bigger than selective search filters. For example, Google’s “safe search” can be applied and it will filter out explicit and obscene material with generally good results. However, it is as simple as changing a setting with one click to remove the protection. More problematic still is that while we wish to avoid censorship and promote free expression, the ability to embed potentially unlawful images in web sites and return them in searches is a major concern, especially with respect to the exploitation of underage children. There is simply no means available to validate whether an image is the product of exploitation, whether it involves minors, unlawful imprisonment, coercion or other unlawful conduct. Thus, as a general question, we must ask ourselves whether the content has any real value or legitimate public interest when weighed against the risks and harms present to victims.
One possible means of beginning to control this problem is by blocking key words associated with images that are intended to convey or suggest illegal content. This would require search engines and ISPs to challenge the propriety of content with a presumption that it should not be published if there is a suggestion of illegal content. Another means of controlling proliferation of illicit content would be for search engines to establish a database of illicit images and video content, and to provide the public with a prominent way to report illicit or suspect content.
Overall, general awareness is an important aspect of reigning in this global exploitation problem. While pornography has become increasingly accepted and common place in our society, it has gained acceptance in the absence of awareness of the human toll upon its victims in far-away places. Perhaps for those search engines that really desire to make a difference, their advertising platforms could be harnessed to provide counter-messages regarding exploitation, missing woman and other compelling social messages that would make viewers think twice. It would seem that technology has created a supply side problem and it is fueling demand and consumption. The ability to empower users to turn away by volition (through both blocking and informative technology) will begin to put a dent in the global syndicates that derive financial reward from these activities. Doing so is on our best interest because these global criminal organizations and their increasing association with terror groups are ultimately a threat to our own security.