Working the room at MassChallenge Texas‘ holiday party, I wove through the tech entrepreneurs to discover SAFE’s Jackie Smith-Francis pitching, not the newest app, but what our community can do to curb human trafficking, in essence, reminding us how we should treat other human beings.
Smith-Francis was there representing SAFE as MassChallenge’s community partner. While 50 years ago, predators used fists or a gun to prey on their victims, the current weapon of choice is often the Internet. A whopping sixty-three percent of abused kids are entrapped online according to THORN, a nonprofit that investigates the intersection of technology and abuse. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to educate future innovators on the wider implications of their applications?
Follow the money
Texas, with its growing population of Range Rovers and Teslas, tops one “best of” list it’s not proud of: Texas has more active human trafficking cases than any other state. The cities where MassChallenge has offices, Houston and Austin, are trafficking epicenters. While Houston is more active, Austin attracts traffickers from all over the world with SXSW Austin City Limits and Formula One.
Unlike in-your-face challenges like homelessness, human trafficking operates under the surface, often invisible and generally exempt from prosecution. In a vivid example of a policy far outpaced by the speed at which technology is applied, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides a legal firewall which shields Internet platforms like Facebook and Craigslist from crimes committed by people use their sites. A child may consider an offer legitimate because they see it on Facebook, never realizing that Facebook is just delivering the goods.
Should Section 230 prove insufficient, an industry has sprung up to mask the identity of companies willing to pay for protection. In a fascinating piece of investigative work for The New York Times, Gabriel J.X.Dance reports that 10 percent of the world’s top sites use Cloudflare to ensure even the tech savvy can’t detect their Internet location. Cloudflare, a billion dollar cybersecurity firm based in San Francisco, was named in 10 percent of reports of hosted child sexual abuse material and over 130,000 complaints about 1,800 sites reported to the Canadian Center for Child Protection since 2017.
Never underestimate the power of being smart about how you lead
Dispiritedly scrolling through the news this morning, I reminded myself a single, determined voice that’s smart in their approach can say, “this is not okay,” and build momentum for solving seemingly insurmountable problems. That’s the multiplier effect of leadership, and that’s what MassChallenge did by sponsoring SAFE.
Because in a moment of serendipity, just as MassChallenge was setting out the holiday lights, a state judge refused Facebook’s request to dismiss Houston attorney Annie McAdam’s lawsuits on the grounds of Section 230 protection.
Ms. McAdams, a personal injury attorney, is suing Facebook on behalf of a trafficked client. Her point? Why can’t Internet companies like Facebook (or Craigslist or the myriad of other sites that host content that foments hate and abuse) do more to warn the their users? We hold car manufacturers accountable for air bags that don’t inflate, cigarette companies for encouraging a lethal habit, why are we not holding Internet platforms accountable for sexual slavery taking place on their platforms?
Set an example
Mentorship can go way beyond a one-on-one career-directed exchange. It is one very accessible aspect of leadership, the secret sauce that creates that multiplier effect. Mentorship can be organizational as well as personal, social and professional, and is often so subtle the mentor doesn’t recognize their imprint.
I was astounded to hear a dear friend who has refused to be sidelined even by a case of advanced Parkinson’s, wonder why a former colleague called to check on him every week. This is a man who has shaped so much of the city’s entrepreneurial culture and never neglected to make time for mentorship. People remember.
Was MassChallenge mentoring us partygoers, reminding us of the slippery slope from the workplace harassment that spawned the #metoo movement to human trafficking? Of the absolute necessity of putting policies in place to protect the vulnerable in both the corporate and broader corporate arenas?
Changing the status quo requires public as well as private sector leadership. Texas is fortunate that Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Lead Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Chairman Emeritus on the House Homeland Security Committee, has stepped up to the plate by sponsoring outreach events and promoting the awareness that leads to broad changes in public policy.
As we close one year and embark on the next, I’m reminded of my friend Francis Nail’s advice, “If you pray for anything, pray for forgiveness.” We have much to be grateful for, but we’re also responsible for our sins of omission, problems we’ve allowed to fester and grow. Let’s remember that each of us and especially those who mentor the next generation must be vigilant in working to make this world a better place.