Not just a pretty face

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Dana D. Kel­ley Dana D. Kel­ley is a free­lance writer from Jones­boro.

All too of­ten, ac­tors and ac­tresses try and chime in on po­lit­i­cal is­sues or cur­rent events from an un­in­formed per­spec­tive, re­ly­ing only on their name fame for celebrity cred­i­bil­ity.

Back in 2005, as the ex­e­cu­tion date for Crips co-founder and con­victed mul­ti­ple-mur­derer Stan­ley “Tookie” Wil­liams ap­proached, ac­tor Jamie Foxx said the only thing he wanted for his birth­day (the same date as Wil­liams’ sched­uled ex­e­cu­tion) was clemency for Tookie.

Wil­liams used a sawed- off 12-gauge shot­gun to kill four peo­ple in two rob­beries that net­ted less than $300. He in­fa­mously mocked the gur­gling sounds his first vic­tim, a con­ve­nience store clerk, made after be­ing shot while prone on the ground. Dur­ing his 24-year stint on death row, more than 40 courts and le­gal en­ti­ties scoured and re­con­sid­ered his case, with unan­i­mous con­clu­sions: He was guilty as charged, and de­serv­ing of his death sen­tence.

That avalanche of ev­i­den­tiary and schol­arly scru­tiny was lost on the likes of Hol­ly­wood types such as Susan Saran­don, Ted Dan­son, Ed As­ner, Richard Drey­fuss, Jill Clay­burgh and oth­ers who put their sig­na­ture to a “Save Tookie” pe­ti­tion. That’s why there’s al­most a neg­a­tive re­flex any time a movie star takes a mi­cro­phone in hand in ad­vo­cacy of this plight or that.

So when I hap­pened across a video link fea­tur­ing ac­tor Ash­ton Kutcher tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tee, I first thought, “oh boy.”

But I watched the 15-minute video, and oh boy! Was I glad I did.

The baby-faced Kutcher (it’s hard to be­lieve the That ’70s Show star is al­most 40) with his boy­ish, tou­sled hair­cut was any­thing but un­in­formed as he laid out a plea for as­sis­tance in the fight against hu­man traf­fick­ing, which he likened to modern slav­ery. Within the first few min­utes, he sep­a­rated him­self from the mere mega­phone crowd ped­dling only their own hot air.

When celebri­ties like him start talk­ing about pol­i­tics, he ac­knowl­edged, that’s when peo­ple usu­ally tell him to stick to his day job.

“So I’d like to talk about my day job,” he said as he in­tro­duced the panel to the or­ga­ni­za­tion he co-founded and chairs. Thorn: Dig­i­tal De­fend­ers of Chil­dren uses tech­nol­ogy to com­bat sex­ual preda­tors, pornog­ra­phers and traf­fick­ers. “We build soft­ware to fight hu­man traf­fick­ing and the sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of chil­dren,” he said.

Kutcher’s suc­cess as an ac­tor is in­dis­putable. He has had a consistent record of be­ing the high­est-paid tele­vi­sion star, earn­ing in ex­cess of $20 mil­lion per sea­son in sit­com work.

His suc­cess as a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist in­vestor in high-tech in­dus­tries is less well-known, though many of his in­vest­ments are pop­u­lar names: Uber, Spo­tify, Shazam, Foursquare, Pin­ter­est and Airbnb, to name a few. To­gether, his act­ing and in­vest­ing have pro­duced a net worth of around $150 mil­lion.

He didn’t waste time cit­ing his cre­den­tials to se­na­tors, how­ever. In­stead he stayed fo­cused on the har­row­ing and heart­break­ing is­sue of sex­ual hu­man traf­fick­ing that per­vades the In­ter­net—and par­tic­u­larly the shad­owy world of the Dark Web.

That’s the part of the In­ter­net con­tent that is only ac­ces­si­ble through use of spe­cific soft­ware, con­fig­u­ra­tions or au­tho­riza­tions. It’s not in­dexed by search en­gines, and though it was born of noble causes—Kutcher told the panel it was de­signed for prac­ti­cal uses such as shar­ing U.S. in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion anony­mously and pro­tect­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­senters in op­pres­sive regimes—it’s also con­stantly used for il­le­gal traf­fick­ing of drugs, weapons and hu­mans.

A 2014 Univer­sity of Portsmouth study found that the most com­mon con­tent found in Darknet en­crypted sites was child pornog­ra­phy, fol­lowed by black mar­kets.

Kutcher called it “the ware­house for some of the most of­fen­sive child­abuse im­ages in the world.” Thorn pro­gram­mers have “taken the in­ves­ti­ga­tion times for Dark Web ma­te­rial from three years to down to what we be­lieve will be three weeks,” he said.

His voice break­ing at times, Kutcher de­scribed his per­sonal in­volve­ment with the is­sue and some of its vic­tims, say­ing he’d seen things “no per­son should ever see.”

Dis­cov­ery of vic­tims is an in­ter­sec­tion point, he noted, be­tween the pipe­line in and out of child ex­ploita­tion vic­tims, and he high­lighted one in par­tic­u­lar: the fos­ter-care sys­tem.

His sup­port­ing sta­tis­tics were ag­gre­gated from var­i­ous state stud­ies, not na­tional re­search, but shock­ing none­the­less. He said 70 per­cent of prison in­mates, and 80 per­cent of death-row oc­cu­pants, had touched the fos­ter-care sys­tem. Half of fos­ter-care kids won’t grad­u­ate high school, he said, and 95 per­cent won’t get a col­lege de­gree.

Most as­ton­ish­ing, he said, was that fos­ter-care chil­dren were four times more likely to be abused. “That’s a breed­ing ground for traf­fick­ing,” he said.

Fos­ter care is a chal­lenge for many states, Ar­kan­sas in­cluded, where chil­dren in our sys­tem are at record highs.

I know from per­sonal ac­quain­tance peo­ple who lov­ingly take in fos­ter kids, but I also know from read­ing and re­search that many fos­ter chil­dren never find such car­ing house­holds.

The sta­tis­tics Kutcher cited must be im­proved, and a study done here spawned sev­eral sug­ges­tions on do­ing just that. Pub­lic aware­ness is al­ways key to so­cial im­prove­ment. For in­spi­ra­tion, Kutcher’s tes­ti­mony video is a great start.

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