Executive Director of Crime Stoppers of Houston
Sunday Mornings with Rania: A Hero Among Us
Here's the problem. Right now, at any given moment, there is a lucrative $150 billion-dollar enterprise made up of sellers, users and providers that is 100 percent criminal in nature and spiraling out of control. The commodity being sold? Young men and women.
Before you think, this could never happen to my child, please think again.
Sellers have access to minors who are on social media and they know that. They also know that we think "this could never happen to our children" so in essence, we're leaving our kids to roam the wild west and global reach of the Internet on their own. All these sellers have to do is befriend whomever they wish and start chatting away. They are patient and will invest time to gain the trust of their prey. They have already shown to have successfully received millions of inappropriate photos or videos of minors from every town, city and state, and then turn those products into online sales. Even worse, in certain situations, some predators are able to get their physical hands on a minor, successfully removing them from their home and life. For those minors or young adults, within hours, they will be branded and sold to a ready list of buyers who take pleasure in exploiting them.
But who are the buyers? Everyday men and women. And they are getting away with it and it is beyond infuriating. So infuriating, in fact, that locally, groups like the Austin 20 and the Houston 20 are gathering the top 20 percent of philanthropists to study and invest in every possible measure to protect minors through education and victims through treatment centers.
But how do we stop this from even taking place? There is so much we need to do: focus on educating parents and minors and work to enhance punishments against users and sellers - but what about the Internet providers? They have gotten away completely unscathed.
Until now... This last year, we have started to take a hard look at the market, the place where the actual "point of sale" takes place: Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and websites like Backpage. Until now, it's been impossible to place any civil or criminal blame on these sites because legally, they are considered "hosts" who cannot be held legally liable for what third-parties post on their sites.
Local and federal legislators are fighting to change this but the technology attorneys and lobbyists (can you say Google?) have been too powerful to fight. They were a united front too difficult to crack. We needed a leader, a hero, and in came one: Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, who just last week, voiced her support for a legislative move that closed the gap and is determined to crack down on the skyrocketing numbers of sex trafficking taking place through internet platforms.
"We all have a responsibility to do our part to fight this. That's why we at Facebook support efforts to pass amended legislation in the House that would allow responsible companies to continue fighting sex trafficking while giving victims the chance to seek justice against companies that knowingly facilitate such abhorrent acts," Sandberg wrote.
This comment, in one week, moved mountains!
Right now, House lawmakers are voting on FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act - a provision that prevents technology companies from being held liable for content users post on their platforms. If FOSTA passes (as it's currently written), it could hold tech companies liable for user generated content on its site, especially content that facilitates sex trafficking. So far, it has bi-partisan support but can it face the tech lobbyists? With a powerhouse like Facebook now on the side of the minors and victims, the opening to the floodgates this movement has needed might finally be upon us. Additionally important, in just the last 24 hours, the White House has also endorsed FOSTA, further pushing it over the finish line. This is a truly historical moment!
So now what? We need you, our friends in the community, to follow this issue and make your voices heard. Our children live their lives online and place so much of their personal information, photos and videos in the hands of these technology mega-giants every single day. In my opinion, those tech companies must heed the responsibility and take any and all steps to protect their users, no matter what.
And parents, we must keep talking to our youth about safe connections, safe dialogue appropriate photos, and more. Parents, realize that where you live and who your child engages with online are two totally separate things. Your online connections come from all over the map and are people with many different intentions.
We must all work together to stop this incredible exploitation of children, all children. Please join the fight. And let's thank Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg who also said:
"Facebook is committed to working with ... with legislators in the House and Senate as the process moves forward to make sure we pass meaningful and strong legislation to stop sex trafficking."
What a potentially historical moment! Join us all in working together to keep all children safe!
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