You can help fight child exploitation

As you may have seen on CNN or from one of many other media and online reports, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s DNA Foundation launched an innovative and interactive digital campaign this week that enlists the public’s help in the fight against child sex trafficking.

The campaign features videos of well-known celebrities sending the message that “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”. With this campaign, the DNA Foundation aims to help change the social dynamics that enable the child sex trade today. Child sex trafficking is a difficult topic, one that many people would prefer to look away from, so we commend DNA Foundation for this daring approach that will get people talking – and thinking.

Microsoft works with advocates, governments, law enforcement, academics and industry stakeholders, including the DNA Foundation, around the world to combat technology-facilitated crimes against children. This is in fact a core area of focus for DCU, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, in our work to combat cybercrime globally.

That’s one of the reasons we are happy to support this interactive “Real Men” campaign by sponsoring search ads on Bing and Yahoo! via Microsoft Advertising for searches related to the campaign. In addition to this effort, we are also a proud participant in the DNA Foundation’s technology task force, created to explore ways that technology can help in the fight against child sex trafficking.

This gives us the opportunity to take what we’ve learned in our work fighting child exploitation (such as the PhotoDNA technology) and other forms of cybercrime, and collaborate with innovative leaders worldwide to help advance the fight against child sexual victimization. We invest in efforts like this not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we believe there is value to our customers in helping make the Internet a safer place for everyone.

Ashton Kutcher wrote earlier this week about the challenges in getting people to engage in a discussion about child sex trafficking. My team has felt similar challenges because this issue makes people terribly uncomfortable, which is understandable. However, without public awareness, action and a fundamental shift in how society views this problem, we cannot hope to meaningfully disrupt the demand fueling the child sex trade today.

That’s why initiatives like DNA Foundation’s “Real Men” campaign, CNN’s Freedom Project, Microsoft’s “A Childhood for Every Child” campaign with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and other awareness campaigns came into being – because together, we need to find more impactful ways to discuss this problem without causing people to tune out in horror before a dialogue can even begin.

DNA Foundation and the famous faces who joined them are to be commended for tackling this challenge so creatively in order to inspire much-needed discussion and perception change on this topic. Their video campaign may in some ways be controversial – particularly as it combines humor into an otherwise very serious topic – but the fact that it’s getting people to engage is the whole point. There are more people talking about the problem of child sex trafficking this week than they were last week and we hope to see that momentum continue.

I was recently in Washington, D.C. meeting with some of the companies, advocates, law enforcement and government leaders working to tackle this difficult problem. In general, these stakeholders agree that the technology industry has been building strong public-private partnerships to combat the online child pornography problem, and that some promising progress is being made. But undeniably, we still have a long way to go.

Even with the resources and efforts Microsoft has devoted to this issue, we continue to discover ways that our services are abused for exploitation – a problem faced by virtually all online service providers. And that is just child pornography – a serious problem in and of itself – but our industry has only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to the related-but-distinct problem of child sex trafficking. 

We do, however, have reason to be optimistic. While no single technology initiative or awareness campaign is going to stamp out child exploitation overnight, the momentum developing in this area suggests there are some promising opportunities on the horizon to help make a meaningful impact. New technologies are being developed and adopted as we speak to help industry, law enforcement and child advocates to identify, measure and ultimately disrupt and prevent victimization. Additionally, as the public and other interested groups increasingly grapple with the problem of demand for this material, I am confident we can turn around the disturbing trends we’ve seen to date on the victimization of children.

My team will continue to update publicly on interesting initiatives as they emerge. If you’re interested in staying up to speed on the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, I welcome you to follow us on Facebook or Twitter. You might also want to check out CNN tonight where Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher will further discuss the problem of child sex trafficking.

In the meantime, if you’re looking to personally help make a difference in this fight, I encourage you to:

• Report problems when you see them: Tell your online service provider or law enforcement if you see online material that abuses or exploits children. Through technologies like PhotoDNA, our vision is to begin to “crowdsource” some of the technical solutions to the problem, so that individual reporting of a child pornography image on one place online could one day help disrupt the spread of that image across the Internet. (Note: When you do report problems you see online, it is important that you are careful to never share or publicly re-post exploitive content like child pornography. Most established online service providers have trusted means to report such content without the need to illegally spread the image further and further victimize the child with unnecessary views of the criminal image of their abuse.)

• Learn more about the problem: I encourage you to check out the following organizations for more information: DNA Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Shared Hope International, Stop Child Trafficking Now and the Polaris Project. CNN’s Freedom Project also provides a number of anti-trafficking resources worth checking out too, including local advocates and authorities in your area.

• Talk openly about the problem and drive demand for solutions: Spread the word to those you know and let policymakers, law enforcement and, yes, even technology companies, know that this is a priority for you. Technology innovators, policymakers and law enforcement can more effectively make change if their customers and constituents are asking for it. Help us create demand for action that will foster greater progress in the fight against child exploitation.

About the Author

Associate General Counsel, Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit