Bringing Research to Bear on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors (a.k.a. “child sex trafficking”)

I believe that technology can be leveraged to empower people in amazing ways, but I also recognize that it can also be used in deeply disturbing ways. All too often, when we as a society see technology being used in horrible ways, we want to blame and ban the technology. As a researcher invested in leveraging the visibility of ugliness to make serious cultural change, my role is to step back and see if we can understand better what’s going on in order to more significantly impact the issue at hand.

I know that technology is being used in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I also know that many people have responded to the visibility of “child sex trafficking” on commercial websites by wanting to shut down those commercial websites. Seeing horrible things makes people want to act, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, without focus, those actions can be counterproductive. As a researcher dedicated to ending crimes against children, my goal is to make sure that we understand what we’re doing so that we actually address the core of the problem, not just the most visible symptoms of it. Unfortunately, we know very little about how children are advertised, bought, sold, and exploited through the use of technology. There are plenty of anecdotes, but rigorous data is limited. This I realized was something that I could help with. As a researcher, my goal has been to try to untangle the complex ecosystem and obtain data that can help us actually go after the root of the problem.

I worked with Heather Casteel and Mitali Thakor to construct a framing document to ask challenging questions about how technology is being used in human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Microsoft Research Connections (Rane Johnson-Stempson), the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (Samantha Doerr, Bill Harmon, and Sue Hotelling), and I put together an RFP last December asking for researchers to submit proposals about how they would research and address some of the hard puzzles in this ecosystem. We were surprised – and delighted – to get far more viable, thought-provoking, and important proposals than we could fund. After a difficult decision process, we decided to fund six projects that are intended to bring important research to bear on this important issue. The grant recipients we funded are as follows:

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
  • Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University, and Norm Lewis research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last ten years.
  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement leverages the benefits and overcomes the obstacles of using technology in combating the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.

My hope is that these amazing scholars will investigate these challenging issues and provide new data and analysis so that we can develop sound socio-technical interventions that really work to address the core issue: the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Through this process, I also hope that we can begin to develop a meaningful research community to really tackle these challenging intellectual and analytic puzzles from multidisciplinary perspectives.

It’s been awe-inspiring to watch so many different organizations and institutions work on combating human trafficking – government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations. My hope is that this research will provide insight into these discussions so that we can develop new tactics and strategies for helping those who are marginalized and victimized. Additionally, I hope that the development of a research community in this area will help provide a locus to which practitioners and advocacy groups can turn to develop viable interventions.

I look forward to working with these scholars and going deeper into these issues in my own research.

Video: TL Taylor on Pro Gaming, Live Streaming & Spectatorship

Current and future visitor TL Taylor spoke last week at the Berkman Luncheon series on “Live Streaming, Computer Games, and the Future of Spectatorship.”

Computer gaming has long been a social activity, complete with forms of spectatorship. With the growth of live-streaming the boundaries of audience are shifting. Professional e-sports players and amateurs alike are broadcasting their play online and in turn growing communities. But interesting issues lurk around notions of audience (and revenue), IP and licensing, and the governance and management of these spaces. T.L. Taylor — Associate Professor in the Center for Computer Games Research and author of the newly released “Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming” (MIT Press, 2012) — presents some preliminary inquiries into this emerging intersection of “social media,” gaming, and broadcasting.

TL just accepted a job as Associate Professor at MIT’s Department of Comparative Media Studies. We’re all stoked to have her in the Boston area.

The Curious Case of EBook Sharing Sites

The popularity of ebooks has skyrocketed in the last few years. The Association of American Publishers reports that eBook sales by US publishers were up 300% in 2011:

Total eBook net sales revenue for 2011 was $21.5 million, a gain of 332.6% over 2010; this represents 3.4 million eBook units sold in 2011, up 303.3 %. As comparison, print formats (Hardcover, Paperback and Mass Market Paperback) increased 2.3% to $335.9 million in 2011.

(Source) With this increase has come the usual hand-wringing over the end of print, the effects on book stores, access to books for people who can’t afford e-readers, the problems caused by DRM and the demise of the First-sale Doctrine (which says you can sell second-hand books, DVDs, videos, etc.), and so forth.

These are all worth investigation, but I’ve become interested in two specific effects of this shift.

First, the enormous rise in erotica sales and the ability of unknown authors without agents or publishers to publish ebooks cheaply and easily.

Second, the ebook sharing underground: a loose network of sites that let people swap ebooks without DRM. Because the files are so small, they’re much easier to disseminate than movies or television shows. They can be easily emailed, DropBoxed, or placed on a DDL (direct download) file-sharing server like 4Shared or Rapidshare. (There are also ebooks on BitTorrent, but it seems that most ebook sharers bypass the torrent infrastructure entirely, probably due to usability concerns or lack of comfort with the protocol.) The popular freeware program Calibre allows ebook users to convert any format (pdf, epub, mobi) to any other format; there’s a popular Calibre plugin that cracks DRM. Most ebook sharing sites contain a tutorial or two on using Calibre.

While all sorts of books are shared online, many of the ebook sharing sites I’ve come across are largely comprised of romance novels. Romance novels are an enormous industry, comprising 13% of the US market and generating more revenue than any other category:

Romance fiction: $1.358 billion in estimated revenue for 2010
Religion/inspirational: $759 million
Mystery: $682 million
Science fiction/fantasy: $559 million
Classic literary fiction: $455 million
[Source: Romance Writers of America]

From my highly unscientific perusing of ebook sharing websites, the majority of participants are women, and most of them are voracious consumers of particular subgenres, such as paranormal or Western. They’re aware of release dates — romances are published on a strict schedule— and so there’s a constant stream of new content being made available. Romances have become so popular on ebook sharing sites that one disgruntled participant wrote:

“The books board seems flooded by self published chic lit. More and more the forums are flooded by garbage that IMHO nobody would ever want to read. All about women having sex with dead people (vampires) or animals (werewolf). Is there some way we could divide the releases into, written by self publicist women, and normal literature. Seems about a 20:1 ratio in favour of the rubbish at the moment.”

(More on this in a second)

Another genre that’s been intensely impacted by file-sharing and technology is academic books. As most of us know, academic books can be ridiculously expensive, often priced for library acquisitions rather than personal purchasing. And most academic authors can expect limited sales and even more limited royalties. The ebook sites that aren’t flooded with romances are full of textbooks and academic books; specialized archives have sprung up for literary criticism, computer science textbooks, and cultural studies, often maintained and organized by graduate students or, I suspect, faculty members. The files shared therein are less likely to be cracked .mobi or .epub files and more likely to be scanned PDFs without OCR (optical character recognition, which allows you to search or cut and paste in PDFs). Given that many professors disseminate class readings as PDFs, it’s unsurprising that these are turning up online. The academic archives are full of students from countries without robust libraries, independent scholars cut off from academic library access, and broke graduate students who can’t afford to spend $50 on a 200-page monograph.

What sites like these display are needs that are not being met by the market. Digital books can be disseminated anywhere, easily, for free. Imagine a library where you never had to wait for a hold because you could just check out an infinitely-replicable digital version. But the way most ebooks are published now is as damaged goods. Due to DRM and publishing restrictions, you can’t easily trade ebooks (ok, you can trade a Kindle ebook once), buy them from yard sales, take them out from the library (OK, you can, but usually not new titles and usually in very limited numbers), borrow them from friends, or read them most of them for free. By circumventing DRM and circulating ebooks through underground, non-commercial sites, users are taking advantage of the possibilities of digital publishing that the publishers are trying to snuff out.

Beyond the general and obvious disruptive potential of ebooks, I’m fascinated by the wide-reaching, and often unexpected, effects of these changes.

This brings me to the other development: the rise in self-publishing, erotica, and self-published erotica. Obviously, 50 Shades of Grey is the exemplar here. For those of you who don’t keep up with zeitgeisty bestsellers, “Fifty Shades” is a three-volume series of BDSM romance, which started life as Twilight fan fiction. It’s sold 10 million copies, primarily to women, and primarily through ebook sales. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for months. And it’s often dismissively referred to as “mommy porn” for “bored Long Island housewives.” The Atlantic called it “terrible” and bemoaned “Can’t America ever like something quality? Are we just heading toward the dumbing down of everything?”

Far from it for me to defend the quality of the writing, but there’s something interesting here. Porn for men isn’t called “daddy porn,” it’s just called “porn.” A friend who got laid off from her job writing SEO articles has turned to writing Kindle Singles; among her erotica writers group, one woman is making $10,00 a month selling self-published erotica. Cutting out the middleman of publishers, even prolific publishers like Harlequin, has opened heretofore ignored markets. And one enormous market is clearly erotica written by and for women. Who are not only buying ebooks, but cracking the DRM on them and sharing them with friends.

Clearly, the impact of ebooks goes beyond the publishing industry. I’m fascinated to see where else in the culture we’ll see changes in reading practices. Beyond “Reading the Romance,” what can these ebook sharing communities teach us about audience and reception? In some ways, these sites, and sites like GoodReads, constitute interpretive communities, where uploaders recommend books and previously-ignored titles can spread like wildfire based on positive reviews. (I haven’t even touched on how social media is changing the relationship between readers and authors. Let’s just say I’ve vowed to be kinder in my GoodReads reviews.) Studies of filesharing are often focused on economics or legal aspects; it’s interesting to imagine the perspectives we might gain by leveraging audience studies and media and cultural studies in our analyses instead.

News and Updates – June 2012

Welcome to a new semi-regular feature where I update what various SMC members have been up to lately (think of this like the class notes in your alumni magazine, without the weddings and with less babies).

Kate Crawford joined SMC as a Principal Researcher in February. She has a number of new papers out:

  • danah boyd and Kate Crawford (2012) “Critical Questions for Big Data”, Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, pp 662 – 679.
    Revised version of the Big Data article Kate & danah wrote at MSR last year and delivered at the OII conference. This is a must-read for those of you working with big datasets.
    [Free access]
  • Kate Crawford (2012) “Four ways of Listening to an iPhone: From Sound and Network Listening to Biometric Data and Geolocative Tracking”, in Studying Mobile Media: Cultural Technologies, Mobile Communication and the iPhone, edited by Larissa Hjorth, Ingrid Richardson and Jean Burgess. London and New York: Routledge, pp 213 – 239.
    While we don’t have a download available, ABC national radio in Australia recently broadcast a special feature story & interview on Kate’s essay. You can hear it here.
  • Kath Albury and Kate Crawford (2012) “Sexting, Consent and Young People’s Ethics: Beyond ‘Megan’s Story'”, Continuum, 26: 3, pp 463 – 473.
    Kate says: “Article on sexting and consent that we first wrote in 2010 – a giant relief to see it finally appear in print!”
    [paywall access]


Continuing the big data theme, Helen Nissenbaum has a new article as well as a new pamphlet out co-written with Kazys Varnelis that sounds awesome and is FREE!

  • Helen Nissenbaum and Kazys Varnelis, Modulated Cities: Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects, Situated Technologies Book Series. [Free PDF download]

    In Situated Technologies Pamphlets 9, Helen Nissenbaum and Kazys Varnelis initiate a redefinition of privacy in the age of big data and networked, geo-spatial environments. Digital technologies permeate our lives and make the walls of the built environment increasingly porous, no longer the hard boundary they once were when it comes to decisions about privacy. Data profiling, aggregation, analysis, and sharing are broad and hidden, making it harder than ever to constrain the flow of data about us. Cautioning that suffocating surveillance could lead to paralyzed dullness, Nissenbaum and Varnelis do not ask us to retreat from digital media but advance interventions like protest, policy changes, and re-design as possible counter-strategies.

  • H. Nissenbaum, “From Preemption to Circumvention: If Technology Regulates Why Do We Need Regulation (and Vice Versa)?” Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 26:3
    “My attention will mostly be drawn to the role of law and regulation in circumstances where regulation by technology seems already to be in place, or, put another way, where regulation is already encoded in architecture.”
    [Free PDF]

danah boyd has a ton of talks coming up, published the Big Data paper with Kate, and has this upcoming paper:

  • Ybarra, Michele, danah boyd, Josephine Korchmaros, and Jay Koby Oppenheim. (In press; Available online) “Defining and Measuring Cyberbullying Within the Larger Context of Bullying Victimization,” Journal of Adolescent Health.
    [paywall access]

    Measures of bullying among English-speaking individuals in the United States should include the word “bully” when possible. The definition may be a useful tool for researchers, but results suggest that it does not necessarily yield a more rigorous measure of bullying victimization. Directly measuring aspects of bullying (i.e., differential power, repetition, over time) reduces misclassification. To prevent double counting across domains, we suggest the following distinctions: mode (e.g., online, in-person), type (e.g., verbal, relational), and environment (e.g., school, home). We conceptualize cyberbullying as bullying communicated through the online mode.

Our friend and frequent visitor Tarleton Gillespie of Cornell has a full-length piece about the Twitter Trends argument he developed here on SMC and at Culture Digitally:

  • Gillespie, Tarleton. “Can an Algorithm Be Wrong?” Limn (v2, 2012). [free access]

You should really check out the new issue of Limn, a academic-ish art-ish journal. This issue is on Clouds and Crowds and features great work from a variety of social media scholars including Biella Coleman (McGill) on Anonymous and Lilly Irani (UC Irvine) on Mechanical Turk.

My fellow outgoing postdoc Mike Ananny published a piece with Dan Kreiss (UNC) called “Journalism For and By the Public: Creating a Free Press” for the National Communication Association’s “Communication Currents” site. Mike also appeared at the Berkman Center, where he gave a lunchtime talk called A Public Right to Hear and Press Freedom in an Age of Networked Journalism. Full video is up on the Berkman site.

Nancy Baym is joining us soon (we’re very excited). She also has a new article out (we’re so productive!):

  • Jeff Hall & Nancy Baym (2012) Calling and Texting (too much): Mobile maintenance expectations, (over)dependence, entrapment, and friendship satisfaction. New Media & Society, 14(2), 316-331.
    [paywall link]
  • This article uses dialectical theory to examine how mobile phone use in close friendships affects relational expectations, the experiences of dependence, overdependence, and entrapment, and how those experiences affect relational satisfaction. Results suggest that increased mobile phone use for the purpose of relational maintenance has contradictory consequences for close friendships. Using mobile phones in close relationships increased expectations of relationship maintenance through mobile phones. Increased mobile maintenance expectations positively predicted dependence, which increased satisfaction, and positively predicted overdependence, which decreased satisfaction. Additionally, entrapment, the guilt and pressure to respond to mobile phone contact, uniquely predicted dissatisfaction. The results are interpreted in relation to the interdependent dialectical tensions of friendship, media entrapment, and the logic of perpetual contact.

Nancy also did a Berkman Center podcast in April, where she interviewed three musicians- Kristin Hersh, Zöe Keating, and Erin McKeown- about using community supported agriculture as a metaphor for rethinking music. [free access]

Finally, I (Alice Marwick) have a piece in Surveillance and Society about to drop (tell all your friends!) and wrote a essay for the Daily Beast with danah about teen social media use (spoiler: it’s not that weird).

Check the Events page for upcoming talks, and the new Video page for multimedia from past events.