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While so-called prostitution websites facilitate sex trafficking, banning them is not the answer

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prostitution websites facilitate sex trafficking

A cross-party group of British lawmakers last week called for the UK Government to follow in America’s footsteps by banning so-called prostitution websites, which are widely used by human traffickers to advertise the services of sex slaves. Suggesting there is mounting evidence that sites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork are fuelling an increase in the sexual exploitation and trafficking of vulnerable women, many of whom are smuggled into the UK to be forced into sex work, members of the All-Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade urged the UK Home Office to make the owners of these sites accountable for profiting from sexual exploitation.

The move comes after US President Donald Trump signed a bill that gave prosecutors and victims of sexual exploitation the power to take legal action against websites that host adverts for sex work. The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) allows criminal and civil actions against a website if its conduct violates sex trafficking laws. Prior to the act coming into force, classified website Craigslist closed down its personal listings in a bid to make sure it did not face prosecution, arguing it could not risk jeopardising all of its other services in the event that its personal pages were misused. Reddit also took down pages relating to the sale of services that involve “physical sexual contact”.

On both sides of the Atlantic, sex worker advocates have said outlawing these types of websites is a disastrous idea, and will actually put prostitutes and trafficked persons in greater danger. Critics of the new US law argue that banning so-called prostitution websites prevents consensual sex workers from safely screening potential customers, and could actually aid traffickers by further isolating their victims. Many sex workers and trafficking victims use internet forums to access information and resources, raising fears that outlawing them could stop them from taking part in important conversations about education and safety. Speaking with Motherboard at the end of April, just after FOSTA had been signed into law, Laura LeMoon, co-founder and Director of harm reduction non-profit Safe Night Access Project Seattle, said she had seen evidence that the bill had actually increased sex trafficking, effectively pushing sex workers back into the hands of pimps.

In the UK, calls for a British equivalent of FOSTA have been met with similar opposition. As MPs debated the issue last week, a coalition of sex worker advocacy groups protested outside Parliament, describing the proposals as a “Trump-inspired” effort to remove sex workers from the internet and put them into “more exploitative and harmful situations”. Writing for the Conversation in response to the debate, academic Belinda Brooks-Gordon told readers that banning so-called prostitution websites will simply drive sex workers underground or onto the back streets, placing both trafficked and consensual prostitutes in greater danger. A recent study conducted by the University of Leicester found that online tools and social media platforms had actually improved the safety of sex workers, “enabling independent working and greater control over working circumstances, and improving safety strategies”.

But despite the wide-ranging criticism of FOSTA and opposition to discussion of the introduction of a UK equivalent, it is indisputable that the internet plays a key role in facilitating the crimes of sex traffickers. In both America and the UK, trafficking gangs have routinely used classified listing services to advertise the sexual services of their victims. In Britain, sex traffickers regularly set up so-called “pop-up brothels”, where prostitutes are forced to work for short periods of time before being moved on to avoid police attention. Trafficking gangs use websites such as Vivastreet and Adultwork to advertise the services of their victims as they move from location to location, making it easy for them to set up shop in new areas. In February, Airbnb teamed up with US anti-trafficking charity Polaris in a bid to prevent the service being used by human traffickers who sexually exploit vulnerable women and girls. Days later, police in the Canadian city of Toronto warned that traffickers were renting out Airbnb properties and using them as pop-up brothels staffed by victims whose details were posted on classified listing websites.

While there is little doubt that organised crime networks are using online personal listing services to sell the sexual services of trafficking victims, all manner of other online platforms are all too often used by criminals to facilitate a range of different forms of criminality, be it people smuggling, drug dealing or child sexual exploitation. Rather than banning online services that are used by consensual sex workers, the UK Government would be better advised to avoid following America’s lead and instead work with the industry on developing new methods to better identify cases in which personal listings are being used by sex traffickers. Pursuing the US model will only result in pushing sex trafficking further underground, and consensual sex workers being exposed to greater risk. As banning so-called prostitution websites will do little to tackle the problem of sex trafficking, legislators should look to address the root causes of the problem, rather than one of the symptoms.

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HP joins forces with Ugandan authorities to tackle counterfeit printer cartridges

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US technology giant HP has teamed up with authorities in Uganda to crack down on the availability of fake HP-branded print cartridges in the country’s capital of Kampala.

The company assisted Ugandan law enforcement agencies in an operation that led to raids on premises owned by two large retailers that were selling counterfeit HP printer cartridges.

Investigators carried out searches of multiple retail outlets and a number of illicit manufacturing facilities where the two firms produced the bogus cartridges.

Commenting on the success of the operation, Glenn Jones, HP’s Global Anti-Counterfeiting Program Manager, said: “HP commends the cooperation and swift action of Ugandan officials and their determination to apprehend and prosecute counterfeiters who break the law.

“We are proud of our continued work to bring counterfeiters to justice, not only in Africa but throughout the world.

“Through our unwavering efforts and commitment to removing counterfeit products from the market, we continue to focus on the protection of our customers through our Anti-Counterfeiting and Fraud Programme.”

HP noted that consumers who buy fake printer cartridges could face performance and reliability issues, and may invalidate their device’s warranty if it breaks as a result of their use of counterfeit HP products.

Over the past five years, law enforcement authorities in countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa have seized some 12 million fake HP printer cartridges and other components, while HP itself has carried out more than 4,500 audits and inspections of partners’ stocks or suspicious deliveries for customers.

HP has established its own Anti-Counterfeiting and Fraud Programme, through which it seeks to educate customers and partners on how to spot fake printing supplies.

The company also works closely with law enforcement agencies and governments across the globe to identify and prosecute companies and individuals that make bogus HP printing products.

Back April, HP said it was cooperating closely with law enforcement officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to shut down two manufacturers and distributors of fake print supplies.

In an operation that took place between December last year and this February, UAE investigators carried out raids on numerous premises linked to the two firms, impounding 35,400 illicit print components, and 1,200 counterfeit ready-for-sale counterfeit toner cartridges.

Speaking after the operation, Jones said: “HP commends the cooperation and swift action of the Emirate of Dubai officials and their determination to apprehend and prosecute counterfeiters who break the law.”

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Interpol leads global crackdown on criminal maritime pollution

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A worldwide law enforcement effort designed to tackle criminal maritime pollution backed by Interpol and Europol has resulted in the discovery of hundreds of offences and exposed serious cases of contamination across the globe.

The month-long operation, which was dubbed 30 Days at Sea and took place throughout October, saw hundreds of law enforcement and environmental agencies from 58 countries uncover more than 500 violations.

In a statement, Interpol said these included numerous illegal discharges of oil and refuse from boats, shipbreaking, breaches of ship emissions regulations, and pollution on rivers and land-based runoff to sea water.

The operation – which involved a global network of 122 national coordinators directing environmental, maritime and border agencies, national police forces, customs, and port authorities – resulted in over 5,200 inspections.

These have led to the establishment of at least 185 investigations, with multiple arrests and prosecutions anticipated.

Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said the operation was designed to disabuse organised criminal gangs of the mistaken belief that maritime pollution is low-risk and is essentially victimless.

“Marine pollution creates health hazards worldwide which undermine sustainable development and requires a multi-agency, multi-sector cooperative response within a solid global security architecture,” he added.

The operation resulted in the discovery of multiple cases of serious contamination, including the dumping of animal farm waste in coastal waters off the Philippines, a vessel that pumped 600 litres of palm oil into the sea near Germany, and the dumping of gallons of waste oil in large bottles at sea, which was uncovered by investigators in Ghana.

Elsewhere, environmental officials prevented a potential disaster in Albania by securing waters around a sinking vessel containing some 500 litres of oil, while a major pollution threat was averted after the collision of two vessels in French waters.

The 30 Days at Sea initiative was led by Interpol’s Pollution Crime Working Group, which heads up a number of projects designed to crack down on the transport, trade and disposal of wastes and hazardous substances in contravention of national and international laws.

Interpol said the effort was launched in response to a call to boost international law enforcement action against emerging environmental crime through action in the field.

The issue of illegal marine pollution is one that global communities may well be able to tackle successfully in the next decade, according to UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim, who urged law enforcement partners “to make sure that there is no impunity for the perpetrators of marine pollution crime”.

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EU study recommends criminalisation of paying for sex as most effective way to tackle forced prostitution

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A two-year EU-funded study has concluded that criminalising the purchase of sex is the most effective way to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery for the purposes of prostitution.

Researchers working on the report examined legislative approaches to prostitution and trafficking in six EU member states, and recommended that the introduction of a criminal offence for buying a person for sexual acts is the only effective means by which governments can reduce demand for victims of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

The study – which was compiled by agencies in Cyprus, Finland, France, Ireland, Lithuania and Sweden – said the introduction of laws relating to prostitution and human trafficking need to be accompanied by a comprehensive range of measures that include enforcement policies, protection and support for all victims of sexual exploitation, monitoring and evaluation, and preventative initiatives.

Monica O’Connor, co-founder of the University College Dublin’s Sexual Exploitation Research Project, and author of the report, commented: “In Sweden, and now in France and Ireland, the laws flow from the understanding of prostitution as a form of violence against women.

“This means the demand to buy girls or women to supply sexual acts is not regarded as legitimate or acceptable within society.

“The purchase of sex is a criminal offence, while those being exploited are decriminalised.”

The Republic of Ireland made it an offence to buy sexual services back in February 2017 after passing a law designed to protect vulnerable women forced into prostitution against their will.

Ireland’s decision followed the introduction of similar legislation in Canada, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland, where men who are caught using sex workers are subject to punishment while those forced into prostitution are treated as victims.

The new EU report, which pools findings made by researchers in each participating country,   recommends that the introduction of laws prohibiting the purchase of sexual services must be accompanied by measures designed to ensure there are no negative consequences for trafficked women.

According to the study, any new legalisation that outlaws the purchase of sexual services should include measures that would ensure victims forced to work as prostitutes would be offered protection, accommodation, early legal intervention, as well as legal advocacy and support.

Former sex worker Mia de Faoite, who now campaigns to prevent human trafficking, said: “This comparative report is most welcome, once again highlighting that targeting the demand through criminalising those who purchase human beings is the most effective way to reduce trafficking of women and girls into prostitution.”

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