Facebook Sex-Trafficking Surge In Indonesia Underscores Need For Social-Media Savvy

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Documents obtained by the ACLU suggest that the FBI doesn't always obtain warrants when it searches emails, Facebook messages and other electronic communications. Facebook

As millions of Indonesian teenagers join the billion Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) users around the world, groups working to combat human trafficking are warning that children and parents there need to be made aware of the dangers of social media.

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that, so far this year, 27 missing Indonesian children are believed to have been abducted after meeting their captors on Facebook. That number has already surpassed the 18 comparable cases reported for all of 2011. Indonesia has some 50 million Facebook users, making it one of the most networked countries behind the United States. Officials say social-media savvy has yet to catch up with the growing number of Facebook-equipped young people.

American teenagers generally understand that posting sensitive personal information -- their schools, addresses, favorite hangouts -- on social-media makes them highly susceptible to predatory Web dwellers. The early days of MySpace, when a sudden flowering of open profiles led to a surge of subsequent abduction cases, brought with them much-needed lessons about the need for online discretion, and Facebook answered that call with a host of more sophisticated privacy settings. But in Indonesia, young people routinely overlook such precautions, posting compromising photos along with information about where they live and hang out.          

“We are racing against time, and the technology frenzy over Facebook is a trend among teenagers here,” Arist Merdeka Sirait, chairman of Indonesia’s National Commission for Child Protection, told AP. “Police should move faster, or many more girls will become victims.”

For its report, the AP interviewed a 14-year-old girl from a suburb of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta who met a 24-year-old man on Facebook -- a man who later coerced her into meeting him in person. The girl was kidnapped and thrown into a room with five other teenage girls. She was drugged, beaten, brutally raped and ultimately told she was going to be sold and shipped to the island of Batam. But when the money to transport her apparently fell through, she was dumped at a bus station, where she was able to find help.

The girl’s case achieved a degree of notoriety in the country, leading other Indonesian parents to come forward to say that their children had also been abducted after meeting someone on Facebook.

A Facebook spokesperson told AP that the website takes sex trafficking “very seriously” and that it works with international authorities to combat criminal behavior.

Indonesia is a major source country for human trafficking, with an estimated 40,000 to 70,000 children involved in trafficking, pornography or prostitution. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. State Department, Indonesia last year saw a greater number of  girls recruited into sex trafficking “through Internet social networking media,” where they are often coerced into meeting predators and kidnapped.

Facebook is by no means the first website to be used as a utility for human traffickers. In 2010, Craigslist removed its “adult services” section after it came under pressure by human-rights groups who said sex trafficking of minors was rampant on the site. And just this past summer, three Washington State teenagers sued the classified website Backpage.com -- which was owned by Village Voice Media -- claiming the site turned a blind eye to child sex ads and allowed them to be sold into forced prostitution. Three top Village Voice Media executives have since formed a new company, leaving Backpage behind.

Despite an increase in high-profile cases, however, statistics regarding the link between social media and human trafficking are murky at best. Last year, researchers at the University of Southern California released a report, “Human Trafficking Online: The Role of Social Networking Sites and Online Classifieds,” which highlighted the dire need for more empirical research from both the government and the private sector.         

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