LONDON - Web companies must do more to stop victims of modern slavery being sold and exploited over the internet, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday, as the country aims to ramp up efforts to tackle traffickers who operate online.
Britain's anti-slavery task force - which unites ministers, police leaders and intelligence chiefs - is using new technologies and data analytics to identify tactics used by traffickers and uncover slavery victims, the government said.
Sexual exploitation accounts for about half of all cases of modern slavery in Britain, with gangs advertising many victims on adult service websites, said a statement by May's office.
From Britain and the United States to India and the Philippines, a soaring number of people are being trafficked online, often via social media and classified advertising websites such as Backpage.com, anti-slavery campaigners say.
"Internet companies cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery...," May said in a statement ahead of a meeting by the task force on Wednesday.
"As the hosts of user-generated content, internet companies can and should be doing more to prevent trafficking-related material from appearing on their platforms," she added.
Britain's ethics watchdog in December called on the government to introduce laws shifting the liability for child sex abuse material and other illegal content onto web firms.
By analyzing websites which could be used to advertise modern slaves, Britain's task force is learning how traffickers exploit their victims online, according to the government.
The global spread of cheap, high-speed internet and the rise in mobile phone ownership is fueling the growth of cybersex trafficking, a Britain-led coalition of governments, charities and technology companies known as WeProtect said this month.
"It is a recognised problem that the internet is used both as a means for recruitment and control of victims of slavery," said Andrew Wallis, head of anti-trafficking charity Unseen.
"Slave masters are increasingly moving their business online," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
At least 13,000 people across Britain are estimated by the government to be victims of modern slavery - but police say the true figure is far more likely to be in the tens of thousands.
Britain is considered a leader in global efforts to combat slavery, and passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 to crack down on traffickers, force businesses to check their supply chains for forced labor, and protect people at risk of being enslaved.