U.S. Congress puts global microscope on Google about sex-trafficking

Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Young Nepalese prostitute in India
This image of a young Nepalese prostitute in India points to a serious problem with human trafficking worldwide. The business of human trafficking has lead youth to brothels that now house up to 100,000 sexworkers in Mumbai, India alone. A U.S. State Department 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP Report), estimates that 4 to 27 million people are being kept in slavery at the same time worldwide. The percentage of modern slavery, including sexual slavery through human trafficking, is now seeing a rapid rise with U.S. numbers as well.  Image: GlobalMediaNews

(WNN) WASHINGTON, D.C., United States: In an effort to stop a rising tide with the use of online networks for human trafficking, two U.S. Representatives of Congress, Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, along with Democrat Carolyn Maloney of New York, have sent a bipartisan letter to the largest online search engine in the world – Google, Inc. Questioning current practices and policies at Google, specifically within the offices of Google Adwords, the Congresswomen are sending a joint letter from Congress to Google to bring hard questions to the internet giant.

Stepping up their efforts, the Blackburn and Maloney Congressional team are bringing Google’s employee policies under the microscope. Unless Google answers the questions regarding the handling, receiving and allowing of online advertising by Google Adwords the corporate giant may be questioned further.

The aim by Congress is to find out more about internal problems at Google Adwords that may be allowing international and local human trafficking rings to sexually exploit and sell women and girls online.

Current efforts to expose global vendors involved with online human trafficking is growing as Google, Inc advertising is also growing with over 36.5 billion U.S. dollars in Google earnings for 2011, a rate showing 29 percent growth for the year. By December 2012, NASDAQ analyst experts estimate Google’s earnings growth will also show a 25.15 percent growth increase.

The real question Congress is now posing to Google’s California (U.S.) based corporation is: What percentage of Google profits might be coming from global advertisements tied to human traffickers?

“Illicit online advertising threatens more than just the freedom of the Internet — it denies women and children their fundamental right to human dignity,” says Rep. Marsha Blackburn.

According to PCWorld magazine, the total number of employees at Google, Inc now includes 31,353 people. Forbes magazine says that Google CEO Larry Page’s financial worth is also currently showing much higher figures than Steve Jobs ever achieved at Apple; which is now showing for Page with a large $16.7 billion in personal worth, although his official voluntary salary at Google is only $1 yearly.

To place ads on the largest online platform in the world, an advertiser can go through a Google Adwords self-instructional. Google Adwords is a program that has been designed to give “you control over your advertising costs,” says a self-described description of Google’s Adwords program. The outreach with the ads are global and far-reaching. “Reach people exactly when they’re searching the Internet for what you offer,” adds Google in its online description.

As far back as 1995, human rights advocates have outlined how the internet can be used as a vehicle for human trafficking activities. “At the beginning of 1995, there were 200 businesses on the World Wide Web selling “erotica services” and products,” says a 2004 report by Donna M. Hughes, a stop human trafficking advocate and professor at the University of Rhode Island University (U.S.) who  is also the Chair of the Women’s Studies Program at the University.

“By mid-1995, strip clubs set up advertising Web sites. They featured pornographic photos of strippers and women engaged in types of legal prostitution offered at that club, such as couch dancing, table dancing, shower shows and dominatrix acts,” Hughes continued. “In August 1995, a search on Yahoo found 391 listings under “Business and Economy : Companies : Sex” for phone sex numbers, adult CD-ROMs, Xrated films, adult computer software; live videoconferencing, prostitution tours, escort services and mail-order-bride agencies. A year later, in August 1996 there were 1676 listings – a four fold increase in one year,” she outlined.

When 16-year-old Alissa met her much older boyfriend at a convenience store in Dallas, Texas (U.S.) she didn’t know that her life was on a path to enslavement. She is one of the stories about victims of global trafficking highlighted by the U.S. State Department in their 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report.

“But soon Alissa’s new boyfriend convinced her to be an escort for him, accompanying men on dates and having sex with them for money. He took her to an area known for street prostitution and forced her to hand over all of her earnings. He made Alissa get a tattoo of his nicknames, branding her as his property, and he posted prostitution advertisements with her picture on an Internet site. He rented hotel rooms around Dallas and forced Alissa to have sex with men who responded to the ads. The man, who kept an assault rifle in the closet of his apartment, threatened Alissa and physically assaulted her on multiple occasions. The man later pled guilty to trafficking Alissa,” outlines the Report.

According to CNN on December 14, 2011, Google Incorporated announced it was providing $11.5 million in special grants to 10 organizations working to “end modern-day slavery and human trafficking,” but organizations slated to receive monies from Google have all yet to include in their most recent public efforts any mention of Google online advertisements and the dangers of any possible connections to human traffickers.

One of the eleven organizations, which is based in the U.S. and who has recently received part of the 11.5 million dollar funding from Google includes The Polaris Project, which is now under executive director Brad Myles. Myles has “provided consultation, training, and technical assistance on anti-trafficking strategies to hundreds of audiences.” Slavery Footprint created by music celebrity Justin Dillon, founder of the slavery abolitionist group CAll+RESPONSE is also one of the recipients; as well as The International Justice Mission founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen. Haugen has worked as a human rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice as well as Officer in Charge of the Investigative Unit with the United Nations in Rwanda.

While offering many legitimate and valuable public businesses a viable way to reach global customers, Google also provides a platform that may easily enable illegal multinational businesses to thrive. A Google Ads Global Adviser video highlights how easy it is for you “to do business anywhere.”

April 13, 2012 Google Adwords showing online
These Google Adwords ads were showing online on April 13, 2012. They appeared after searching the term ‘adult women.’ These and many ads like them frequently show up in Google search and throughout the internet. How many of them are connected to human trafficking activities and require more investigation?

To place ads on the largest online platform in the world – Google – all an advertiser has to do is go through Google Adwords. This is a program that has been exceptionally designed to give “you control over your advertising costs,” says  Google’s own description of its Adwords program. The outreach seems to be hyper-global. “Reach people exactly when they’re searching the Internet for what you offer,” adds Google.

“What if you could reach out to potential customers anywhere around the globe regardless of what country they’re in or what language they speak?” says the Google Ads Global Adviser video.

In the past few years use of the internet has expanded dramatically.  With this both customers and those selling online have been rising quickly and steadily. Recently on March 14, 2012, Google Adwords announced that a brand new policy would permit one person to now have 10,000 advertising campaigns (including their active and paused campaigns), instead of the previous allowance of 500, with 20,000 ad groups per campaign. Along with this, permissions to use 3 million key words (words used to describe an advertisement to the public online) are now allowed per account. That means that one person can now be involved in 200,000,000 online ad groups through Google that are also using a total of 600 million different ways to link to Google online.

So why wouldn’t sex-traffickers want to use the largest online platform in the world to sell their products? It seems their success or non-success is now up to Google’s desire to stop this activity.

“At this time it should be clear that the ultimate issue is not just craigslist but, rather, the issue as to what extent the Internet generally plays in facilitating sex trafficking of minors,” said Representative Jackie Speier at an important formal Homeland Security hearing on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking held by the U.S. Committee on the Judiciary for the House of Representatives in September 2010.

Human trafficking, especially sex-trafficking is not a one level operation. Traffickers who seek to go around the system can have different people working for them at numerous levels who work within an intricate supply chain to place ads online.  Online ‘link experts’ too are available that can help target audiences who are the most responsive to an particular type of ad.

“Today, perpetrators hide behind their personal computers and have a child at their doorstep with a click of a button,” continued statements made during the 2010 U.S. Congressional Hearing on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking.

“Between 2004 and 2008, child sex trafficking complaints originating from the Internet actually grew by 1,000 percent. And that is just the number of complaints, not the total volume. In fact, estimates are that on Craigslist alone, there are more than 3.2 million posts on the adult services section a year. Now, this section has been taken down very recently… Today, Web sites escape liability when an ad on their site results in child prostitution, rape, or even death,” continued the Hearing.

The terrain of cyber-crime and global internet business today can lend itself to easy anonymity. “Might it not be the case that it would be easier now to run a campaign with a bunch of adult ads on non-adult keywords, since the new changes to the Adwords program?” said part of a 2005 discussion on Google Adwords in an Adwords advertiser’s forum. “At least until someone at Google noticed?” continued the discussion.

“There don’t seem to be a lot of rules about relevance anymore – as long as you’re willing to pay the CPC [Cost Per Click] they want, they run the ad. And if you don’t identify it as adult themed, and they don’t have a flag in place – well, what’s to stop someone from running a bunch of adult ads for words like ‘nickelodean’ or ‘disneyworld’?” continued the discussion in the forum post.

CPC – Cost Per Click is defined by Google as the amount that is paid to Google when someone clicks on an ad and the viewer online goes over to the link’s corresponding website. In the case of ads that point to human trafficking, numerous deceptive sites often hide the accurate and true ages of women and girls who are pictured in their sites.

“With Craiglist, and now Backpage.com, under public scrutiny, it makes sense that Google Adwords is now in the limelight,” says Phil Cenedella. “It’s just a matter of time before a young woman, girl or boy who has been trafficked online will reveal publicly that the ad that sold her, or him, for sex services was also placed on a paid advertisement on Google Adwords,” added Cenendela in a recent interview with WNN.

To date the letter from Congress, addressed to Google’s CEO Larry Page and delivered on April 4, 2012 asking Google, Inc to describe the internal process at Google to filter and prevent human trafficking ads, has gone unanswered. Google has not made any formal statement yet to the Congress in response.

“As a leader in technology, I encourage Google also to lead in the fight against online human trafficking,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney before the release of the letter that was recently delivered to Google by Congress. “Too many people believe that human trafficking is a problem only in foreign countries but online advertising has opened new markets for the estimated 100,000 children in the United States—most of whom are American citizens—exploited through commercial sex every year, with the average age of first exploitation between 12-13 years old,” she continued.

Following Craigslist, Backpage.com has more recently come into the limelight as a publisher who has been exposed publishing ads relating to sex-trafficking. A recent March 8, 2012 case revealed in an indictment report that Backpage.com published ads showing nude and semi-nude photographs of a 15-year-old girl who was kidnapped, drugged, gang-raped and sodomized in order to force her to cooperate with prostitution sales made through ads placed on Backpage.com via cellphone. “THE biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States appears to be a Web site called Backpage.com,” said New York Times commentator and human rights advocate Nicholas Kristof.

Ad on Backpage.com shows Google Adwords advertising coupon 'deal'
This recent page on Backpage.com shows a clear connection in the supply chain between Google Adwords and Backpage.com through a Backpage offer for advertisers. It offers a coupon for a $75 dollar credit for participation with Google Adwords.

Following rising reports of Backpage ads pointing to human traffickers, direct connections between Backpage.com and Google Adwords are now beginning to be made by advocates, legislators and the media. In spite of this, anti-human trafficking agencies who received funding from Google recently still refuse to point out these and other indications.

“The internet has been identified as the number one platform that pimps, traffickers and johns currently use for buying and selling women and children for sex in the United States,” says the Polaris Project. Pointing to the use of online sex ads, internet classifieds, local newspapers, phone directories, word of mouth and text messaging as “Advertising mechanisms to attract customers,” Polaris mentions Craigslist and also Backpage.com on their webpage, but any direct mention of Google ads seem to be missing.

“Whatever Google is doing or not doing to prevent these sorts of advertisements from appearing on their properties, Google has not satisfied a significant number of human rights organizations who have a specialized understanding of how these ads contribute to the human trafficking of women and girls,” said the joint U.S. Congressional letter, authored by Congresswomen Blackburn and Maloney and recently sent to executives at Google. “We are particularly concerned that these human rights groups may have identified yet another area where Google profits from illicit activities such as Google’s advertising of controlled substances for which your company paid a $500,000,000 forfeiture to the United States last year,” continues the letter.

The reported deaths of two women found dead in the trunk of a car in the city of Detroit (U.S.) in mid December 2011 has now been linked to two other women who were “burned beyond recognition” and were also found dead in the trunk of a different and separate car in Detroit only days later on Christmas Day 2011. Three of the four women have been directly linked to online ads that “specifically dealt with prearranged adult dating services,” said Detroit Police Chief Ralph L. Godbee. These specific online ads were not found on Google per se but on Backpage.com. The advertising agency, owned by Village Voice Media, has over 35 million online loyal visitors per month. It also publishes ads in over 500 cities inside the United States and 19 cities in the United Kingdom.

In the wake of such bad publicity, Goldman Sachs Group Inc just sold their entire share of the agency after stating it has had little authority over Backpage.com company policy and has grown “uncomfortable with the direction of the company.”

“I have no doubt that if Google was found to profit from online ads that promoted human trafficking, they would immediately stop the placement of those ads,” says U.S. Congressional Representative Blackburn. “Since Google has a unique ability to help thwart this modern-day form of human slavery, we are looking forward to learning how Google responds to various human rights critics on this issue and whether Google’s advertising policies address the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls.”

A recent legislative bill in the (U.S.) State of Connecticut seeking to make both in-print and online publishers and their employees “criminally liable” for escort ads using under-age minors was recently pushed through the legislature. But House Bill 5504 did not end up including the provision against publishers inside the bill. What it did stay is that a requirement that places responsibility on the owners of escort agencies had been made in the Bill to stipulate that the people featured in their ads are not minors.

On a sweep of support, Washington State Bill 6251 is now the first state legislation to officially pass legal measures that make any employee libel who may be involved with aiding a human trafficker to place an ad online. The bill (6251:Section 2) states “A person commits the offense of advertising commercial sexual abuse of a minor if he or she knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act, which is to take place in the state of Washington and that includes the depiction of a minor.”

The (U.S.) California Transparency in Supply Chains Act 2010 may also start to be used in court as a legal instrument that could start to place pressure on Google, Inc, along with Google’s executive board members. The law asks that Google must have website post with a “conspicuous and easily understood” link on its homepage with detailed information concerning human trafficking and advertising on its website. This information must include and:

  • Evaluates the risk of slavery and human trafficking in its product supply chain, and whether the evaluation is conducted by a third party
  • Audits its suppliers, and whether the audits are independent and unannounced
  • Requires direct suppliers to certify that materials incorporated into the product comply with applicable laws regarding slavery and human trafficking
  • Holds employees and suppliers accountable
  • Trains employees on mitigating the risk of slavery and human trafficking in the product supply chain

Congresswomen Marsha Blackburn and Carolyn Maloney’s letter to Google outlines much of the same requirements.

“These are our daughters, their schoolmates, and their friends; everyone — every company — must understand the reality: that sex trafficking is the slavery of the 21st century,” says U.S. Congressional Rep. Carolyn Maloney. “I hope Google will look into its practices to make sure it does not contribute to web-based sex trafficking.”  Rep. Maloney, a Democrat from a district of Manhattan (New York, U.S.), is also co-chair of the Congressional Human Trafficking Caucus, working to educate people about the realities of the criminal trade in human lives and to stop the growing tide of human trafficking crimes inside the U.S.

The U.S. is not the only place where attempts to place legal sanctions against online advertisements have appeared. A recent sanction by Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has found that Google has “engaged and continues to engage in misleading and deceptive conduct” with ads connected to the sale of automobiles in the region.

“Those who are trying to rescue victims of sex-trafficking haven’t asked victims what they know about the use of online ads to sell them,” outlined Cenedella. “Undoubtedly, there’s alot of fear out there. Alot of the girls, boys and women don’t want to talk, but some are beginning to talk. Craigslist, Backpage and Google Adwords are truly all part of the same supply chain bringing sex-trafficking victims to those scum bags who are buying them,” added Cenedella. “What the public needs to know is: Google is 100 times larger than Backpage and Craigslist combined. So as much as people are screaming about the problem, including myself, we should be asking Google to answer some in-depth questions,” he continued. “How many victims of human trafficking have been sold on Google Adwords daily? How much revenue has Google Adwords reaped from the categories of listings that harbor criminals in the last 24 months? What might show up in the answers that come is that all of this crime is growing dramatically.”

Last month, 19 US Senators also sent a letter to the Village Voice, calling for them to stop using online advertising on Backpage.com to promote child prostitution on their website. While everyone discusses the companies who may be involved in cross border and illegal crimes, the victims of sex-trafficking often go without access to help or safety measures.


See the recent U.S. Congressional Letter to Google, Inc about online ads and human trafficking HERE

Also see WNN – Women News Network sponsored Change.org petition (WNN is acting as a news reporting agency only for this petition) for citizens worldwide who are currently trying to get a message over to Google about online human trafficking HERE


Outlining joint efforts in U.S. Congress to address how Google may be linked to online ads tied to human trafficking, Congressman Blackburn talks to FOX TV network celebrity Judge 99999999999. This 5:01 min April 9, 2012 video was posted to YouTube by Congresswoman Blackburn’s office publication ‘The Blackburn Report.’


An unprecedented and compelling inquiry into a dark side of immigration so difficult to cover or probe with depth, THE PRICE OF SEX sheds light on the underground criminal network of human trafficking and experiences of trafficked Eastern European women forced into prostitution abroad. Photojournalist Mimi Chakarova’s feature documentary caps years of painstaking, on-the-ground reporting that aired on Frontline (PBS) and 60 Minutes (CBS) and earned her an Emmy nomination, Magnum photo agency’s Inge Morath Award, and a Webby for Internet excellence. For more information, visit http://www.wmm.com/filmcatalog/pages/c804.shtml


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Lys Anzia is a human rights journalist and editor who’s work has appeared in CURRENT TV, The Guardian News, Thomson Reuters Foundation (Trustlaw), World Bank Publications, Morocco World News, ReliefWeb and Cairo based Bikya Masr, as well as many others. She is also the founder/editor-at-large for WNN – Women News Network.


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