Digital Brothels – USA in the forefront against digital trafficking

During the spring of 2018, RealStars in cooperation with the magazine “Faktum” brought to light the concept of digital brothels through a seminary and a published report. They are escort sites that exist on an international level and function as a platform to sell ads for sexual services, virtually without risk, making the venture highly profitable and falls well within the definition of procuring of sexual services under the Swedish penal code. However, since this form of procuring takes place over the internet it complicates matters and makes it less accessible to the judicial system compared to the real world meeting spots that used to serve the same purpose. This is partially explaining the lack of measures taken that has made it possible for these enterprises to flourish. Since 2012, there has only been one sentence set for digital procuring in Sweden.

What enables these escort sites to generate their revenue is a service that sees frequent use in our daily lives and is provided by all major credit card companies such as MasterCard and Visa, namely digital payment options. While most companies claim to abide by the regulations that prohibit the use of their services for illegal transactions the use of digital brothels to sell ads continue and as established, is illegal under Swedish law. Here is an opportunity to take social responsibility and act.

Our intent here is to summarize what has been done concerning this in the USA where greater action has been taken with assistance from major credit card companies to stifle the digital brothel enterprise.

In June, 2015, Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County, Illinois successfully convinced the companies Master Card and Visa to cease processing payments of sex ads on the digital marketplace seized). The site responded by marking the “Adult Services” category as censured while removing the ads for escort services, but also retaliated with a lawsuit against Sheriff Dart for damages to the sites revenue and a restraining order that would prevent him from lobbying further companies to block transactions on the site.  Dart was however not alone in his efforts and following the events the US Senate’s Subcommittee of Investigations launched an investigation into the nature of the site the same year (publicized january 2017) which revealed that not only were the leadership aware of how their site facilitated prostitution rings, but purposefully concealed the sale of children in “adult ads”.

The digital brothels complicity in these crimes against human rights led to lawsuits from trafficking-survivors against the offending companies but faced an uphill battle since the sites were largely protected of liability by US law. Luckily, with the primary intent to combat trafficking with children Congress approved a bill in the spring of 2018 that enables internet based platforms that consciously assist ,supports or simplifies trafficking to be held accountable. With victims more likely to have a successful lawsuit and the companies increased accountability puts a major dent in their ability to generate a profit from sexual exploitation, this is however still met with some criticism from pro-prostitutions lobbyists who argue that the laws ambiguousness risks censuring information on how people working in prostitution might make a living in less hazardous circumstances. Another concern is that the sex trade will move to parts of the web even further out of reach of the judiciary. This isn’t an unusual criticism from pro-prostitution lobbyists and it’s important to remember that these groups often advocate a less confined prostitution, but as we’ve seen in Germany and Holland leads to a normalization of sex trade and an increase in trafficking.

Legislations passed to combat sexual exploitation and provide relief to it’s victims such as SESTA-FOSTA and discussions surrounding the events are not only valuable steps taken, but sources of information on how to combat an international problem on a local level. Companies taking responsibility for the use of their services and signing bills adapted to a digital climate is a big step in the right direction, but it’s a social problem that runs deeper than the crime itself and we also have to focus our attention to the buyers of sexual services that create the demand.

Unlike the American system that prohibits both the sale and procuring of sex, RealStars are proponents of the Swedish legislation that alleviates the already difficult position persons in prostitution are in by not marking them as criminals. They instead need support in the form of exit-programs to change their situation and procurers need to have greater accountability for their actions. Even if the SESTA-FOSTA has taken a firm position for the rights of victims of trafficking, the unrest of how it will actually function in practice shows that much work still remains in both efforts made and attitudes influenced.