Last year, California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined attorneys general across the country in declaring war against Backpage.com, a free classified website run by Village Voice Media. The officials threatened legal action if the site didn’t stop running ads for adult services, some of which have been linked to underage sex trafficking.
But while Harris took a confrontational tone with Backpage – which has since balked at shutting down its adult pages – a more cooperative dynamic has emerged this year between the attorney general and online companies.
Harris recently announced an agreement with mobile and tech companies that requires their apps to better display their privacy policies. While Harris said she will not rule out legal action against sites such as Backpage, her office has begun to build more alliances with online firms. And as companies such as Facebook have matured, they have become more willing to cooperate with government leaders and law enforcement.
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This week, representatives from Facebook and Microsoft will be among 50 law enforcement and nonprofit leaders who are meeting as part of a new Department of Justice task force on human trafficking in the state. By the end of the summer, the government task force plans to issue a report containing best-practice guidelines for law enforcement, tech companies and service providers combating human trafficking locally and online.
“Having everyone at the table, it makes them more vested in being part of the process and finding solutions,” said former special assistant attorney general Suzy Loftus, who organized the meetings. “These public-private partnerships are one tool at our disposal.”
But industry observers say tech companies’ increasing cooperation with government leaders and law enforcement is less a sign of goodwill than of self-preservation. As online companies come to dominate the marketplace, they’ll look for ways to keep the upper hand. And many say the cooperation could lead to problems for consumers.
“This is very basic economics. If you’re a company and you’re trying to undermine your competition, you look for the best return on your investment. And sometimes that means working with the government,” said Eric Goldman, an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the High Tech Law Institute.
“If the industry and the government are getting cozy together, the industry might get a seat at the table that’s helping to shape regulation. Why wouldn’t they want to be a part of that?”
Some privacy advocates say partnerships between tech companies and governmental agencies threaten the rights of Internet users. Civil rights attorneys have criticized Facebook and other companies for signing on in support of CISPA, a bill that would allow private companies to share with the government any user information that constitutes a homeland security or cyber threat.
"It's a civil liberties nightmare," said Rainey Reitman, director of activism for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It's under the guise of something everybody wants to get behind – internet security – but the actual implication of this bill would be to undo decades of privacy law."
Facebook already shares personal account information with law enforcement agencies upon subpoena, court order and sometimes request, and runs every single photograph uploaded onto the site through a federal child pornography database run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The social networking company advertises a national hotline for sex trafficking victims on the site, and lists information about help for victims in its FAQ.
At least one issue the task force has discussed is whether Facebook has the right to screen users’ search terms for words that might identify them as potential victims of human or sexual trafficking. The websites could then show the user ads for helpful organizations or a national trafficking hotline, something that Google, for example, already does when users enter "suicide" into the search bar. A suicide hotline appears at the top of the list.
"I haven't got much problem with that, because at that point you don't have much data going outside of Google," said Reitman. "I think you get into a different situation when you have data going from users to the government, without them understanding what's happening."
While many websites have joined in efforts to clamp down on the distribution of child pornography, trafficking is a newer issue. In a span of just a few years, the Internet has quickly entered the forefront in conversations about combating human trafficking.
In 2007, two years after California lawmakers made human trafficking a felony, the attorney general’s office convened a similar task force and released a report on trafficking in the state. The Internet was not mentioned.
Then in 2010, the State Department called together a meeting with researchers in Washington, D.C., to discuss the intersection of trafficking and technology.
Facebook and other tech companies attended the discussion, and Mark Latonero, director of research at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and his colleagues decided to study the issue. They released a report, “Human Trafficking Online,” in 2011.
Previously, state leaders weren’t “really thinking about technology as a tool to help,” said Latonero, a member of the task force.
Attorneys general have also put pressure on Craigslist, Tagged and Myspace to alter policies and services. “We know technology can be used for good and bad," Latonero said. "We also want to understand how technology can be used not only to facilitate trafficking but also monitor and combat it.”
In February, Attorney General Harris decided to follow suit, inviting many of the same organizations and tech companies to the first task force meeting in close to five years. Google, with which Microsoft is at war over everything from monopolizing the market to search engine algorithms, was invited to participate in the second task force meeting last month, but declined.
Microsoft, which helped develop the PhotoDNA technology used by Facebook and other websites to identify known child pornography images, recently awarded grants to researchers on the topic of sex trafficking and technology. They are helping to build a searchable database of information mined from known and publicly accessible sex-trade websites for law enforcement agencies across the country. Researchers plan to analyze patterns in the data to understand how human traffickers operate online.
Samantha Doerr, a member of the task force and Microsoft's digital crimes unit, said researchers are not violating privacy protections because the data they are looking at is publicly available online. She said companies can build technology, such as PhotoDNA, that is more "exact" and that allows companies to detect illegal activity or images without impinging on users’ privacy rights.
“A lot of information out there is extremely publicly available and visible,” she said. “And these crimes we're talking about are really tremendously awful.”