Culture

Are Local BPOs Involved in the Global Sex Trade?

A raid last week turned up evidence linking a local call center to Backpage, a site under fire for hosting sex ads.
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The Philippines already has the dubious distinction of being called by UNICEF “the global epicenter of the live-stream sexual abuse trade” and one of the worst-affected countries in the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to online sexual abuse.

The country may yet contribute to online porn and human trafficking in another way. Last week, NBC News broke a story about a raid on Avion, a business process outsourcing (BPO) company based in Laoag, Ilocos Norte. Though the thrilling raid (NBC reports “two planes, 14 vehicles, sheriffs and lawyers, computer forensic experts, and armed guards” were involved) was launched by a private company, CoStar, to look for evidence that a rival company was stealing real-estate photos and information, the raid turned up evidence that the BPO was actively involved in looking for advertisers involved in prostitution, and offering ad space on Backpage, a classified-ads site. The raid also turned up child-porn photos.

Backpage has been under fire for months, accused of promoting prostitution and child pornography on its site. It’s even been the subject of a documentary, I Am Jane Doe, which tells the stories of victims of human trafficking on the site. But Backpage execs have maintained that they are not liable for ads posted on their site, and are protected by a provision in the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which says that online service providers cannot be held responsible for content from third parties. The evidence turned up in this raid may destroy that defense.

Photos, ads, voice recordings, and even employee manuals recovered in the raid shows that Avion BPO workers were actively involved in getting sex-trade advertisers on to Backpage.

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Backpage removed the adult sections from the listings on its U.S. site in January 2017, hours before a Senate inquiry into their business. However, adult listings are still very much present in its many international sites, including here in the Philippines, where prostitution is illegal (the listings may masquerade as “dating” ads).

The Philippine Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (R.A. 10175) explicitly prohibits “cybersex” and child pornography, but does not cover all aspects of online human trafficking.

With reporting from Anri Ichimura

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