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Will closure of Backpage dent Britain's sex slave trade?

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 April 2018 00:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration

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Online sex slavery more complicated in Britain than in the United States with Backpage just the tip of the iceberg

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's sex slave trade is unlikely to be dented by the closure of the sex marketplace website Backpage as traffickers use dozens of sites to advertise and sell their victims, according to police and anti-trafficking experts.

U.S. law enforcement agencies last week shut Backpage.com - a classified advertising site primarily used to sell sex - which some analysts believe accounted for 80 percent of online sex trafficking in the United States including of under-age girls.

In Britain dozens of adverts offering sexual services were listed daily on the affiliated Backpage.co.uk before it was closed, and as many as one in 20 may have involved victims of slavery, according to an exclusive analysis by Thomson Reuters.

But analysts said online sex slavery was more complicated in Britain than in the United States with Backpage just the tip of the iceberg as police are monitoring at least 50 other sites for cases and trialling software to spot ads posted by traffickers.

"(In Britain) you have many more of these listings sites where sex ads are posted," said Wade Shen, a program manager at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is the U.S. Department of Defense's research arm.

More than 8,500 ads for sexual services are posted online every month in Britain - where it is legal to buy and sell sex but soliciting and pimping are banned - according to the police.

"Criminals can hide among the sheer volume of online ads," Dan Parkinson, a detective sergeant with Britain's national anti-slavery policing unit, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Yet traffickers often leave traces which can help police to spot cases of slavery among ads posted by willing sex workers.

The same contact number, username and blurb across multiple ads are possible indicators, while descriptions such as 'new', 'young' and 'fresh' may mean the woman is underage or a slave, said Thomson Reuters analysts who examined Backpage for months.

Other signs include refusing to talk terms over the phone, photos of faces - as most sex workers prefer privacy - and being willing to visit clients in the early hours, said a woman who was forced to sell sex by a pimp in Britain over several years.

"Technology has created a new age of pimping," she said by email, asking to remain anonymous. "It's easy for pimps, profits are lucrative, and the likelihood of being caught is minimal."

While it is hard to pinpoint the extent to which women and girls are sold online for sex in Britain, 166 anti-slavery police operations involved sex exploitation as of the start of the year - up from 102 in early 2017 - according to police data.

Britain's anti-slavery helpline has received a rising number of calls about adult services and listing websites, said Andrew Wallis, founder of the charity Unseen which runs the service.

"Traffickers are increasingly harnessing the power of the web to recruit, control and exploit victims," Wallis said.

At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of forced labour, sex exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure could be in the tens of thousands with anti-slavery investigations rising.


The police are trialling software to automate the process of trawling websites to identify ads posted by traffickers, and working with banks to investigate suspicious online payments.

They are also demanding greater cooperation from the adult service sites to share data about users who buy sex, said Phil Brewer, chief of the Metropolitan Police's anti-slavery squad.

"We have warned these websites that if they're not ready to work with us, then we are prepared to take action," Brewer said.

However under Britain's sexual offences and modern slavery laws, a website could only be prosecuted if they were shown to have knowingly facilitated human trafficking, said Caroline Haughey, a barrister at London-based law firm Furnival Chambers.

And even in such cases, taking action could put victims of sex trafficking in even greater danger, police and lawyers say.

"If you prevent something being easily free and available, and make it criminal, you will drive it underground," Haughey said. "Then it becomes harder to trace, and harder to police."

While adult service websites are used by traffickers, they also protect countless women who choose to sell sex, according to sex worker collectives which fear the prospect of Britain considering a U.S.-style law targeting online sex marketplaces.

The U.S. Senate last month passed a law aimed at penalising websites that facilitate online sex trafficking, and fail to keep all exploitative material off their platforms.

"Such legislation ... will do next to nothing to protect sex trafficking victims," said Caty Simon of Tits and Sass, a blog for sex workers. "It will simply dissolve the communities - most of which are online - that sex workers rely on for survival."


Britain has been considered a leader in the world's drive to end trafficking since passing the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to fight a crime affecting an estimated 40 million people globally.

Yet three years on, anti-slavery activists say the law has not been utilised fully to jail traffickers, support victims or drive firms to scrutinise their supply chains for forced labour.

Nazir Afzal, a former British chief prosecutor, said efforts to tackle online sex trafficking are hindered by limited police resources and a lack of computing expertise and experience.

"We have this online Wild West where people are exploiting others with impunity in plain sight," said Afzal, who prosecuted some of the highest-profile cases of sex slavery in Britain.

"It's like a game of cat-and-mouse, but the cat has two legs tied together."

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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