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Sex, lies, and surveillance: Something's wrong with the war on sex trafficking

Turns out, sex censorship is a lucrative growth market.
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Illustration by Koren Shadmi

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Silicon Valley's biggest companies have partnered with a single organization to fight sex trafficking -- one that maintains a data collection pipeline, is partnered with Palantir, and helps law enforcement profile and track sex workers without their consent. Major websites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others are working with a nonprofit called Thorn ("digital defenders of children") and, perhaps predictably, its methods are dubious.

Thorn offers internet companies its content moderation tool "Safer," and for law enforcement, its separate data-mining and user-profiling tool "Spotlight." Both use data sources and AI to automate policing of sex content. Of Thorn's 31 nonprofit partners, 27 target adults and vow to abolish consensual sex work under the banner of saving children from sex trafficking.

"With our work on child sex trafficking, we recognize that this crime often presents itself within the broader field of sex work which does include consensual adult sex work," Thorn CEO Julie Cordua told Engadget via email. "We also realize that the reasons why people have sex for money are complex and varied. This is a complex field with a lot of nuance. Our programs are designed specifically to channel very limited resources on the recovery of children who are being exploited through sex trafficking, not on consenting adults."

Before Engadget reached Thorn for comment on this article, its website listed partnerships with data dealers, web scrapers and identity brokers including Connotate, Trusona, Trade Desk, Laxdaela, and 41st Parameter (Experian). When asked about Thorn's relationships with the now-removed partners, Cordua told Engadget that our queries reminded Thorn its "Partnerships" page "is outdated."

"Why don't you just work with Thorn?"

On May 23rd in Patreon's luxurious new San Francisco offices, everyone at the Sexual Content, & Child Protection conference was upset. It featured presentations by the Internet Watch Foundation on removing online child exploitation material, experts on sex offender registries, psychologists on pedophilia prevention, consensual sex work, and more.

One reason we were upset was the disturbing nature of what we were there to discuss: the facts and factors of child sexual exploitation online.

The other reason culminated within a presentation by attorney Cathy Gellis on Section 230, concerning online content and the law. Referencing the lawsuit between the US federal government's FOSTA law and human rights groups, things grew especially grave when Gellis described what's happened since the law's April 2018 passage and implementation online.

Like Thorn's nonprofit partners, FOSTA states consensual adult sex work is the same as child sex trafficking. When a woman has consensual sex for art or profit, her online speech about it is now interpreted as an internet crime on par with sex-trafficked children. You might say FOSTA doesn't "believe women." Its supporters don't. Major internet platforms, not known for believing the experiences of female users, rushed to implement FOSTA's restrictions.

Yet FOSTA has utterly backfired. According to a new paper from Fordham Law School, FOSTA's conflation of sex work with trafficking makes it "A Hostile Law with a Human Cost." It states:

Within one month of FOSTA's enactment, thirteen sex workers were reported missing, and two were dead from suicide. Sex workers operating independently faced a tremendous and immediate uptick in unwanted solicitation from individuals offering or demanding to traffic them. Numerous others were raped, assaulted, and rendered homeless or unable to feed their children. These egregious acts of violence and economic devastation are directly attributable to FOSTA's enactment.

Meanwhile, law enforcement professionals have complained that their investigations into sex-trafficking cases have been "blinded" -- they no longer have advertisements to subpoena, digital records to produce for prosecutors, and leads that can bring them to live crime scenes full of evidence, like hotel rooms.

Even the Department of Justice asked the House Judiciary Committee to change FOSTA's focus to traffickers, and not cases where "there is minimal federal interest," like consensual sex work. That request was ignored.

At the child protection conference Gellis said lawsuit plaintiffs contend FOSTA has made it harder to prosecute sex trafficking, in addition to erasing discussion about child sexual abuse prevention and silencing sex workers.

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We know people are being harmed on all sides of FOSTA, Gellis said, "but everyone has been chased into the shadows." Victims cannot be found.

The room of experts, internet company employees, engineers, and policymakers was brought to a standstill.

The EFF of online child protection organizations

The child protection conference was organized by the Prostasia Foundation. Frankly, I was surprised press was even invited, as usually such meetings with internet companies are kept behind closed doors. It made more sense when the organizer, Prostasia's Executive Director Jeremy Malcolm, briefed me on the event's "Chatham House Rule" policy (though we could attribute quotes to presenters).

"Producers of legitimate 18+ sexual content are often stigmatized by association with producers of child pornography," Malcolm told Engadget via email, "and this meeting is largely about drawing a line between these two things and saying NO, they are different."

Malcolm added, "People like sex workers and adult entertainers are actually among the strongest opponents of child sexual abuse. But they are very seldom heard, because other child protection groups have a broader anti-porn and anti-sex work agenda, which silences minority voices -- especially LGBTQ+ people, kinky people, and sex workers."

Malcolm is a member of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, and was EFF's Senior Global Policy Analyst. He explained Prostasia's approach is a challenge to other digital child protection orgs. "We aim to essentially be an EFF-like watchdog of these groups," Malcolm said, "as well as having our own positive child abuse prevention agenda, based on science rather than stigma."

I appreciate "watching the watchers" more than most, but I wondered what Malcolm was talking about. Turns out, anti-trafficking organizations are a lucrative growth market riddled with charlatans who've fooled companies as big as Google for years, and gotten away with it.

In late 2011, Google made a corporate donation of $11.5 million to "ending modern day slavery." The three groups Google funded were International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, and Not for Sale.

International Justice Mission is a conservative evangelical Christian group. Polaris Project defines sex trafficking in its "Modern Slavery" paper as including escorts, strip club employees, cammers, and phone sex workers. Not for Sale has an Abolitionist Academy for "lectures and lessons to learn about many aspects of trafficking, such as investigations, aftercare, health care, and Biblical justice."

All three -- IJM, Polaris Project, and Not For Sale -- were utterly taken apart for using invented facts and falsified data in Truthout's 2015 Special Report: Money and Lies in Anti-Human Trafficking NGOs. Truthout wrote, "in the world of anti-trafficking organizations, money and lies are deeply – perhaps inextricably – tied. The false claims, forwarded as fact, are big. So is the money that's spent and received in the service of those claims – more than half a billion dollars in recent years. That we know of."

"When you work in this world, you know fabricated stories are used by everyone to get funding," Pierre Legros -- ex-husband of disgraced sex trafficking fraudster Somaly Mam -- told GlobalPost in 2015.

So Prostasia's interest in becoming an EFF watchdog for these exploitative nonprofits is quite warranted.

Yet, according to Malcolm, Prostasia's outreach to many major Internet platforms has been met with, "Well, why don't you just work with Thorn?"

Two and a half web scrapers

I first heard about Thorn when its founder, Ashton Kutcher, testified on behalf of Thorn in 2017 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations -- and press called out Kutcher and Thorn for using sex-trafficking numbers that didn't add up.

Prior to this, I'd been aware of Thorn's early incarnation as DNA Foundation, which got raked over the coals in 2011 for ... you guessed it: inaccurate data about sex trafficking stats. The organization claimed that "100,000 to 300,000 children are turning to prostitution every year." But a two-month investigation using law enforcement data showed that there were 8,263 arrests across America for underage sex work over the past ten years.

Anyway. Since then, Thorn pivoted into big data analytics.

Thorn doesn't usually like to talk about what its products Safer or Spotlight do. Its website says "Safer is a complete solution to help stop child sexual abuse material from spreading across your platform. Keeping you, your company and your users, safer."

Safer's whitepaper "Platform Protection 101" mentions its hashing, matching, reporting, and law enforcement modules. Thorn CEO Julie Cordua described Safer as a "content moderation platform" and told Engadget:

Safer is specifically designed to stop the spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM, legally called child pornography) and does not intersect with our work on child sex trafficking ...

We offer a module so companies can hash their images (in their own environment so the data does not leave) and send hashes to our service to bounce against a list of hashes of confirmed child sexual abuse images/videos so they can detect if they are hosting illegal child pornography and then take action (e.g., removal, reporting). This type of detection helps stop the viral spread of this content, stops the re-victimization of the children in the material and can lead to the identification of children in these images/videos.

Spotlight is Thorn's other product. At present and according to publicly available information, Spotlight scrapes websites and forums; its handout says "Spotlight is built on a data archive of millions of records of escort ads and forum data collected from various websites."

Then, "Spotlight takes this massive amount of data and turns it into an asset for law enforcement." Additionally, "The tool allows an officer to search or filter escort ads based on phone number, email, key words, age, location."

War on sex, meet war on privacy

Let's be clear about a couple of things. FOSTA's blast radius is deadly, and increasing with time. If Safer operates exactly as Thorn claims, then that is good, crucial work worth supporting. But Spotlight is terrifying and practically purpose-made for abuse. And Thorn supported FOSTA.

Perhaps we may better understand Thorn by whom it works with, features on its website, and its nonprofit partners. Because they really supported FOSTA.

Thorn's website features a post on trafficking recovery by Stephany Powell (Thorn partner Journey Out). On the topic of consensual sex work, Journey Out unequivocally states it is a false "perception" that sex work could be a woman's choice. Nearly all nonprofits Thorn partners with feel the same way, and say so. So much for believing women, or any daydreams about women being the ones who control their bodies.

The concern here is that Thorn and its partners like Polaris Project are working closely with companies like Palantir to nonconsensually track sex workers and everyone they come in contact with. Palantir Knows Everything About You describes how Palantir has so far escaped a ruling on whether or not its tools are illegal:

"Civil liberties lawyers are seeking a case to challenge the constitutionality of Palantir's use," Bloomberg wrote, "but prosecutors and immigration agents have been careful not to cite the software in evidentiary documents." Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Lawyers Guild's National Immigration Project told Bloomberg, "Palantir lives on that secrecy." And so, by extension, do Thorn and Polaris Project.

Thorn is now the primary go-to organization for major internet companies in "fighting sex trafficking" and child exploitation material. It has partnered with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Pinterest, Imgur, IAC (Match, Tinder, OkCupid), and more companies that set social policy and wrangle untold reams of sensitive user data.

Engadget reached out to Google, Facebook, and Twitter about their relationships with Thorn and did not receive a response by time of publication. We asked all three internet giants if they used Thorn's Safer or Spotlight products and whether Thorn has advised them on content policies.

Facebook appears to have a special relationship with Thorn that the social media company affectionately calls "long-standing" and includes joint collaboration on hackathons. As some may recall, Facebook pushed FOSTA to appease critical lawmakers. Though anyone who worries about what Facebook and Thorn might do to their privacy knows that using any Facebook property is akin to swinging at a piñata packed with hand grenades.

Anyway. What have we learned today? Well, for one, the scorched-earth approach to sex censorship -- FOSTA -- is working about as well as the "war on drugs." For another, we should've known the war on sex was a lucrative growth market.

I do not mean to diminish the work of those who stop the spread of child abuse material. I just would like to strongly urge us not to indulge any more tricksters than we already have.

Image: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images (FOSTA protest)

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