In a new article for Engadget, author and reporter Violet Blue vivisects the anti-trafficking movement, with special attention paid to Ashton Kutcher's organization, Thorn.
Like a female samurai of the Kill Bill variety, investigative journalist Violet Blue eviscerates the self-serving anti-sex trafficking industry in a recent report for Engadget that leaves Ashton Kutcher’s secretive nonprofit, Thorn, with an epic, intestines-baring belly wound.
In “Sex, lies, and surveillance: Something’s wrong with the war on sex trafficking,” Blue details how a consortium of nonprofits is pushing a sexually repressive agenda, conflating sex trafficking with sex work, and using bogus statistics to spread fear and widen its influence. She calls the anti-sex-trafficking industry “a lucrative growth market riddled with charlatans,” which over the years has garnered millions of dollars in funding from the federal government and big tech companies, like Google and Facebook.
Among the major players is Thorn, which Kutcher co-founded in 2009 with then-wife Demi Moore. Reportedly, Kutcher and Moore were inspired after they’d watched a late-night documentary on Television about child sex trafficking in Cambodia.
Billing itself as the “digital defender of children,” Thorn claims its mission is to “eliminate child sexual abuse from the internet” via two forms of software it has developed: “Safer,” which purportedly removes child porn from an organization’s platform; and “Spotlight,” which uses a massive archive of escort ads to keep tabs on sex workers for law enforcement.
Blue writes that both tools “use data sources and AI to automate policing of sex content.” A Thorn spokeswoman told Blue that the company is unconcerned with consensual sex work and just wants to recover children from sexual slavery. But as Blue notes, most of Thorn’s nonprofit partners “vow to abolish consensual sex work” as a means to end the exploitation of minors.
Thorn’s propaganda and deeds belie its stated goals. Reporters have caught Kutcher making questionable claims about the efficacy of Thorn’s software and trafficking in dubious statistics. Worse still was Thorn’s support in 2018 for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a federal law making it illegal to promote or facilitate sex work online.
Combined with the government’s takedown (under a different statute) of the online classified ads site Backpage.com, FOSTA was like a pale horse of death trampling sex workers underfoot, whether or not their services were actually illegal. The draconian measure precipitated a wave of self-censorship by interactive websites worried that sexually suggestive third-party content might trigger the attention of the authorities.
In describing the law’s horrific aftermath, Blue quotes from a recent paper in the Fordham Law Review by juris doctorate candidate Lura Chamberlain, which describes FOSTA as an unmitigated disaster. FOSTA denied sex workers the ability to vet their clients, making the sex trade increasingly unsafe. And it removed a tool used by law enforcement to rescue actual victims of sex trafficking, which, unlike sex work among consenting adults (aka, prostitution), involves minors, or adults through force, fraud or coercion .
Within one month of FOSTA’s enactment, thirteen sex workers were reported missing, and two were dead from suicide. Sex workers operating independently faced a tremendous and immediate uptick in unwanted solicitation from individuals offering or demanding to traffic them. Numerous others were raped, assaulted, and rendered homeless or unable to feed their children. These egregious acts of violence and economic devastation are directly attributable to FOSTA’s enactment.
Chamberlain’s paper is an important contribution to the study of FOSTA, and Blue is to be commended for drawing attention to it. Indeed, throughout her piece, Blue links to sources that even jaded followers of this subject will find enlightening, such as a link to an unnerving Bloomberg piece about the data-mining company Palantir, which has teamed up with Kutcher’s Thorn and is equally opaque about its methods.
Kutcher may play a lovable doofus on TV, but when it comes to Thorn, he seems equal parts J. Edgar Hoover and P.T. Barnum. The connection to Palantir alone makes one wonder about Thorn’s intentions for all the information that it scrapes from the internet.
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