There is a dangerous duo out there, and what we don't know about this new partnership could endanger our families. I am referring to the twin phenomena of the internet's "dark web" and the shocking scourge of child trafficking. There is mounting evidence that these two monstrosities are joining forces.
The dark web is the clandestine, back alley of the internet where criminal activity is cloaked by digital anonymity. Typical transactions can include the illegal drug trade, stolen identities, or even hardware for terrorism. A teenager in England was recently arrested while trying to purchase a car bomb on the dark web. Right now your name, social security number, and birth date could be bought and sold in that digital sphere for as little as $60 to $80 according Flashpoint, a security firm.
But there is an even deeper human tragedy. It happens when the dark web's closeted environment provides aid and comfort for child exploiters. The threat is so real that DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, has devised a web search engine that helps government agencies to profile web sites that contain clues that they might be in the business of human enslavement.
Initially, when I looked into this marriage made in hell – the coupling of that dark part of the Internet with child exploitation – I approached it merely as a theory. But as I launched into research for my upcoming suspense novel, The Empowered, a story that exposes both threats, I was confronted with the ugly reality, and breaking news has since confirmed it. In the month of October alone, a nation-wide FBI sting operation resulted in the arrest of 120 alleged child sex traffickers. In the process, federal agents rescued 84 child victims whose ages averaged 15 years old, although stunningly, one victim was less than one. Among its other ploys, this trafficking enterprise was using the internet to transact business.
Can we stop this horrid partnership? Child identification technologies are one way to hunt down the dangerous exploitation of children on websites. Solis is an ingenious computer program used by law enforcement agencies to identify and hopefully rescue oppressed children whose images appear on the dark web. But there are legal impediments. One barrier is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that protects Internet platforms from legal liability for illegal content when it is posted on their sites by third parties. Earlier this year a federal court in New York held that section 230 provides legal immunity to Internet platforms even when those sites are used by terrorists. Equally problematic, section 230 protects not only "legitimate" social media giants like Facebook, the site involved in the New York case, but also dubious ones operating in the dark web. Backpage, an online classified service that published sex-for-hire ads, had successfully hidden behind the protections of Section 230 before it ultimately closed up shop.
Congress has responded by proposing bills in both the House (H.R. 1865) and the Senate (S. 1693) that would eliminate legal protections for any web site that knowingly allows a digital platform to be used for human trafficking, including the trafficking of children. Not surprisingly, internet advocates are pushing back. They argue that any tinkering with web autonomy jeopardizes Internet profits and may thwart future digital development. But they also make the curious suggestion that it could actually hamper law enforcement efforts. They contend that police agencies need to be able to follow the Internet trail left by web criminals who are involved in , and if Section 230 is restricted, they say, those internet trails will disappear.
But that argument is not only wildly illogical, it is bewilderingly callous. It suggests that we permit dark web child exploiters to flourish so we can catch them easier, ignoring the human toll meted out to their young victims in the process. While undercover agents sometimes permit transactional crimes that don't involve human assault to temporarily continue to fruition so they can prosecute them, I have yet to hear in my 40-plud years as a trial lawyer of a single instance where law enforcement agents have intentionally permitted children to be sexually assaulted, or worse, so they can have a better chance of catching the predators.
This is not an either or proposition. We can both patrol the dark web, and also hold it legally responsible at the same time. As long as child traffickers use the internet, then computer programs like Solis will continue to be useful for police agencies to locate children at risk, to rescue them from the clutches of traffickers, and, optimally, to prosecute the evil doers. At the same time Congress should eliminate Section 230's troublesome legal protections so that sites on the dark web that permit the commercial trade of children are held legally accountable under the spotlight of the law. Shadowy, crime-ridden alleys lose their criminal appeal when the lights are turned on. Once Section 230 is fixed, if criminals (or the web sites that harbor them) are arrogant enough to continue using the dark web to hurt children, what they will find there will be the granite face of the law, waiting for them.
Admittedly, the finer points of free speech and Internet liberty must still be worked out in the wording of these two bills that are pending in Congress. But one thing seems clear: Section 230 must be modified so it reflects a society that values human life and the protection of children more than it prizes future digital advances or the economic interests of internet technology companies.
Craig Parshall is a best-selling fiction author and serves as Special Counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C. His next suspense novel, The Empowered, is his 13th and will be released by Tyndale Publishing House in January.