Imagining a Sustainable and Inclusive Approach to Child Safety Online

What would be a sustainable and inclusive approach to child safety online? Today at the Berkman Center, Mitali Thakor presented her research on human trafficking and moderated a discussion of how we see and respond to issues of child safety.

Mitali Thakor is a PhD student at MIT’s history and science of technology program, who studies sex work, sex trafficking, technology, and digital forensics. She uses Feminist STS and critical race studies to explore the ways in which activists, computer scientists, lawyers, and law enforcement officials negotiate their relationships to anti-trafficking via emergent technologies and discourses of carceral control.

“What is human trafficking?” asks Mitali. In this growing “industry” of activism, there are so-called abolitionist networks, alliances between evangelical abolitionist Christian organizations committed to fighting prostitution and sex work aligning with feminist organizations who fight sex work, which they see as sexual exploitation. Mitali shows us campaigns by feminist organizations and Christian organizations working together. In her research, she’s interested in the peculiar alliances and valences of this particular anti-trafficking network.

This network uses metaphors of slavery, and idealized ideas of what freedom is about. Men are often imagined as “defenders against slavery.” One organization has a campaign called “The Defenders USA,” where you get your own shield and sword to be a defender against prostitution.

What happens when evangelicals and feminist activists work together– how does that affect our trafficking policies? Mitali says that in 2001, a UN protocol on trafficking began to inform how most countries approach a wide variety of issues from trafficked labor to pornography and sex work. In the US, responses tend to be focused on sexual exploitation rather than wider labor exploitation. Although the agriculture industry dominates US trafficking, the focus on sexual exploitation is associated with a “rescue industry” and heavy involvement of law enforcement. This approach, called “carceral feminism” by some feminist scholars, often involves NGOs and the state working together.

Mitali tells us the story of Monica Jones, a black trans woman social worker in Phoenix, who was arrested by the police in collaboration with anti-trafficking organizations. The ACLU has called this “arrested for walking while trans.” A court has judged her trial unfair and opened it up for retrial. Mitali says that this is one example where carceral feminism involves the policing of sexuality and the incarceration of marginalized groups.

As a PhD student at HASTS, Mitali does extensive fieldwork with computer scientists, law enforcement, and the bureaucrats/government officials who are making decisions about child safety.

Mitali calls this collaboration between NGOs and police “para-judicial policing.” In her fieldwork with a Dutch organization, Mitali is studying these collaborations. She shows us a video by the NGO Terres Des Hommes, who go undercover to manipulate a fake girl computer model to identify “webcam sex tourists” and hand them over to the police. Mitali has spent time with this organization and the partners they have in southeast Asia.

Sweetie, this generated avatar of a girl, was created by a gaming company for Terres Des Homes. Sweetie can do 14 different movements, including her arms. She does not undress on camera, does not do any kind of sexualized acts, is just sitting, and is able to talk and move her arms. This campaign was set up, working out of a warehouse (they were worried they would be found by the people they were chatting to). They went onto webcam chats, and then used the Sweetie image in a minority of cases. They brought the conversation to the point where it seemed like the man wanted something, took whatever identifying information they could, printed a physical packet of papers, and walked the list of names to Interpol and Europol.  Many law enforcement officers find this abhorrent and stupid. This is the work of the police, they say. NGO organizations describe this as a new and cutting edge model for the future of addressing these issues. Terres Des Hommes calls this “pro-active policing.”

When TDH submits these names, who’s actually arrested? The number is under 20, only people who had previous cases open. The sting operation can’t directly lead to an arrest.

Why a filipino child? After testing a variety of avatars, the company settled on her. The image is an amalgam of over 100 children that the organization works with. The organization has been working in the philippines for a long time.

Who is the organization trying to catch? Whenever there’s a non-law-enforcement effort, there’s already a pre-determined predator they’re trying to catch. The number one chatters of Sweetie were from the UK and US, but number 3 was India, and women also chatted with it. This was an unexpected outcome; they were expecting to catch European men.

Mitali also researches other visualization and imaging techniques for identifying and detecting “missing children.” She’s also interested in the “gamification of surveillance” and the use of this surveillance (whether photo tagging and image recognition or avatars) to carry out these “policing” activities.

Citing questions raised by her fieldwork, Mitali says, “I’m interested in feminist technologies, and interested in design and ending exploitation. “What is at stake in these issues? Do young people have rights? Do they have rights or sexual rights? What does it mean to talk about young people and sexual rights. Are young people’s sexual rights protected under the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, and do law enforcement think about that? How do we think about risk, and do we see online spaces as spaces of opportunity? What is a problematic versus a dangerous situation? And finally, I’m thinking about governance and design: law enforcement, NGOs, computer scientists, and companies working together. What do these partnerships mean, who’s not at the table, and what might it mean to actually have young people involved in exploitation campaigns?” Mitali asks us to imagine speculative possibilities for ending exploitation and liberation that still uphold children’s rights.

Question: Sweetie was an amalgam of many real children. Did those children or those parents consent to this use of them? Mitali: many NGOs face this issue. Terres Des Homme works with many young people who don’t have parents or guardians. Their images were used without their consent, and the Philippines government complained, having felt targeted by this campaign. This idea of “webcam sex tourism” — which this organization coined — combines many complex ideas, and was a publicity campaign.

Question: Why did they generate computer generated children in pornographic situations? Mitali: child pornography is illegal in the US and legal in Japan, and are often met by challenges by the ACLU. In the US, we use the phrase “child pornography,” but in the EU, “child abuse images” and “child exploitation images” are the more common terms. The US has moved from a rehabilitative model to one that sets out to incarcerate people for life. As older crimes like public indecency are now tried under trafficking laws, these new laws are changing penalties for longer-standing issues.

Mary Gray: Many of these campaigns see the Internet as a “stranger-danger threat” when we know that most abuse comes from family and friends. Mitali: campaigns to address sexual exploitation tend to turn into censorship for all sexual information. What might it take to support young people to negotiate risks that they experience?

Question: You have people responding to an image that is false. How might this be considered a form of entrapment? What if people say, “I know this wasn’t a child- it didn’t look very real.”

David Larochelle: You mentioned that this was a publicity stunt. What was the organization hoping to accomplish aside from catching perpetrators? Was it trying to scare people? Raise money? Mitali: Definitely to raise money; that’s always the goal of any NGO. I think it’s more than a publicity campaign, however. They wanted to “wake up the police who weren’t doing anything.” The police said, “of course we’re always doing investigations, you just don’t hear about them.” This NGO and many organizations are reshaping themselves around this trafficking frame. Two years ago, they changed their tagline from “saving the children of the world” to “stop exploitation.” This is why I make the link to human trafficking and the anti-trafficking industry, where this is becoming their goal. Now, police are working closely with these organizations on Sweetie 2.0. The Dutch police are the number 1 employer in the Netherlands, were nationalized several years ago, and hired computer scientists and psychologists to work on their team for exploitation issues. The police psychologists responded, “if you want to believe that [sweetie] is a real child to you, it will be real enough.” What does “real enough” mean for policies around “implied,” “artificial,” and “cgi” forms of pornography.

Question: What about the effects of international organized crime? There are groups who are making a lot of money doing this, and police departments are involved because they get kickbacks. The speaker mentioned that when people tried to do work to end human trafficking, they received threats. Mitali: I don’t know too much about organized crime around trafficking, but this was a major concern of the NGO. They didn’t want this design process to get out, and they did their work from an undisclosed location. They now say, “I don’t know why we were so paranoid.” The traditional police’s fear about “proactive policing” is that

Mitali notes that Anonymous has done a lot of anti-trafficking work themselves. Operation “PedoChat” claimed to have outed a large number of people chatting with children and seeking sex online. Mitali notes that “I’m uncomfortable when we have so many entities involved in many kinds of policing. It’s this classic fear of ubiquitous surveillance. What are our fears about young people, and what happens”

Question by me: Having shared more complex cases, what directions do you find most promising in the sex trafficking space. Mitali tells us about an organization called “End child prostitution and trafficking,” and they’re interested in doing research on sexy selfies. For an NGO to be doing that kind of research is radical and maybe is thinking about inclusive design. To have organizations doing thinking about “child” and “sexuality” next to each other is a radical move.

David Larochelle: how does gender play into these debates? Mitali: with trafficking cases, it’s hard to get numbers and specific data, but some researchers in specific places have documented trafficking of boys and men, especially for sexual exploitation. When you use imagery that only shows women and children, you do a service in ignoring very real exploitation towards men and boys. Furthermore, the number one form of exploitation is of adult men and women in meat packing plants and farm work, but it’s easier and safer in the current US political context for organizations to focus on sex trafficking and women. When I talk about “carceral feminism,” we’re seeing “heavy policing”  life imprisonment as strong responses to these issues, with incentives like the “war on drugs.”

Question: Viscerally, these crimes of forcing someone to do something against their will feel pretty abhorrent. Where do you see law enforcement fitting in? Mitali: one way would be a child-centered approach rather than “finding the bad guys.” Instead, we might focus on supporting the people who are missing. When children are “rescued” by these campaigns, what happens to them? People who are not citizens of the country where they are rescued, they’re often deported. A child and rehabilitative approach would focus on finding exploited children and care for them long term.

Question: How much research have you done into the conditions of the children who were doing webcam chats in the Philippines? A serious discussion of their digital rights has to be understood in the context of their access. For example, Sonia Livingstone is arguing that any discussion of digital rights for children must include analysis of access; it’s easy for people in the Global North to assume similar access for children in the Global South. Mitali: I’ve done some research in Cebu, which is where this NGO works. Internet Cafes are common physical social spaces for people to play games and also cam. Terry Senft has done research with camgirls– and we need more work with children.

Question by me: I know you’ve published whitepapers and other reports together with Microsoft; how do you think about the role your work places in these issues. Mitali: I turn the lens on people in positions of power, doing ethnography of the police and methods of policing. Other researchers have looked at children, and cultural spaces of children’s sexuality. I hope that this work can help people think about the people in positions of power, something that STS is designed to do.

Mary Gray: How do the police feel about this being the “drain” of their focus versus other kinds of policing. Mitali: it depends on the funding of policing. When you have child exploitation centers in the police, it’s not a burden. But when NGOs get involved, they tend to feel like they have to clean up other organizations’ messes. They also can be concerned when other organizations press against what they see as their borders.

Mitali: As I write a report on “child safety,” I’m trying to find links to people who involve young people in design processes. Nathan refers to Roger Hart’s work on Children’s Participation. Mary Gray refers to Hasinoff’s book Sexting Panic.

Readers with further ideas and suggestions can reach Mitali on Twiter at @mitalithakor.