TikTok trafficking ring a sign of risky digital spaces | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 10, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 10, 2021


TikTok trafficking ring a sign of risky digital spaces

The authorities’ priority must be online safety, not the policing of free speech on social media

A police investigation into the rape and torture of a Bangladeshi woman in India has revealed a sinister network of human trafficking operating within the country. In a recent press briefing, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) confirmed that a transnational gang involving some Bangladeshis has been trafficking young girls, using the social networking platform TikTok, and forcing them into sex work in India.

While this is hardly the first case of transnational sex trafficking in Bangladesh—according to anti-human trafficking NGOs, around 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children aged between 12-30 years have been illegally sent to India over the last decade—this is likely the first known instance of trafficking on this scale occurring via TikTok. Police also found a Facebook group where the young people meeting on TikTok were added—after befriending the victims, gang members offered them well-paid jobs in India and eventually trafficked them via border districts.

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This incident has, beyond a doubt, proven just how unsafe online spaces can be for children and young people who are not well-versed in navigating such spaces. TikTok's privacy issues have been questioned for a while now, since it is a platform where all the content is open to the public. In 2019, it was given a record USD 5.7 million fine by the US Federal Trade Commission for mishandling children's data. However, as previous attempts to regulate online platforms have shown, the use of VPNs means that it is almost impossible to restrict usage, regardless of what country you are in. Experts opine that the only solution is to improve digital literacy and spread awareness in order to ensure safety in digital spaces.

The easy access of this trafficking network to its victims—the gang targeted school and college students, and sometimes young housewives—demonstrates a glaring gap in digital literacy and digital safety in Bangladesh. The authorities must launch a long-term and comprehensive awareness programme to target this gap in knowledge, ensuring that not only children and young people but also their guardians are aware of the pitfalls of the Internet, the potential of being "groomed" by online friends and the importance of protecting their privacy online. The country's Cyber Security and Crimes Division and Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Cell must also be more vigilant. One of the arrested members of the ring admitted to investigators that he had trafficked nearly 1,000 women in the last eight years, so why are we only investigating this now?

It is reprehensible that traffickers are being allowed to operate online so freely, selling young girls into slavery and torture after meeting them on social media, whereas journalists and conscientious citizens are being arrested under the draconian Digital Security Act for exercising their right to freedom of speech on the same platforms. It is clear that the authorities have got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to policing the digital world. They must ensure they get it right before more young women become victims of trafficking.

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