The Question That Led Ashton Kutcher To Co-Found A Nonprofit That Fights Child Sexual Exploitation

"Is there a single cause that I can really get behind?" There was.

Years ago, when actor, investor, and A Plus co-founder Ashton Kutcher had just "started to gain some level of fame" — as he recently put it to W Magazine — and was constantly asked to be the face of multiple organizations, he asked himself, "Is there a single cause that I can really get behind?"

The question led him to co-found Thorn, a nonprofit organization that "drives technology innovation to fight child sexual exploitation."

"We work to put the best and brightest minds in technology to work on behalf of some of the world's most vulnerable children," Julie Cordua, the chief executive officer of Thorn, told A Plus. While technology has "democratized" child sexual abuse, making it easier than ever before for people to engage with abuse material, it also has the power to stop it in its digital tracks. 

"We need to be deploying the latest in technology and the best brainpower to help find victims faster and stop the spread of abuse material," Cordua added. 

Before becoming the vast and vigilant network of "digital defenders" it is today, Thorn was just an idea sparked by a Dateline special about sex trafficking Kutcher and his then-wife Demi Moore watched together. "Those Cambodian kids were 7, 8, 9 years old," he told W Magazine "I started asking around, and people said to me, 'Oh, no, it's happening right here in Los Angeles.' " 



Investigating further, Kutcher reached out to the Clinton Global Initiative and learned that poverty and exploitation were often, if not always, intertwined. 

"Poverty and abuse play a significant role in trafficking," Cordua affirmed. "In the United States, the majority of children who are trafficked have touched the foster care system at some point in their lives. They are often homeless, runaways, neglected or abused before they are trafficked." According to DoSomething.org, over one billion people live in what is considered "extreme poverty," or less than $1.25 a day. Due to these overwhelming statistics, Kutcher thought poverty itself was too big a problem for one person to solve. 

However, once Kutcher learned that approximately 70 percent of child sex trafficking in the United States occurs online, he suddenly saw a way to make a direct impact. 

"This was a medium I had a lot of experience with, where I knew a lot of folks who could help," he explained to W Magazine. Taking advantage of years of positive relationships with tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Pinterest, Twitter, and Amazon, he forged corporate alliances toward a single common good. 

The culmination of that alliance was Thorn.

Kutcher testifying about his work with Thorn on Capitol Hill.

Since then, Thorn has become a crusader at the forefront of the fight as child sexual exploitation. In 2013, the organization has pioneered new communication tools like integrated text shortcode for the national human trafficking hotline number to help victims seek help safely. They've also collaborated with various law enforcement organizations to create Project Vic, a central repository of child sexual abuse image hashes to increase efficiency of victim identification, and written The Thorn Sound Practices Guide to educate digital companies on how best to identify, remove, report, and prevent child sexual abuse material and abusive behavior on their platforms. 

Thorn's "most widely adopted tool," however, is called Spotlight. More than 4,000 officers in the US and Canada employ it to help find child sex trafficking victims who are sold online, according to Cordua. "Spotlight uses natural language processing and machine learning to help sift through hundreds of thousands of ads daily to surface those that may be children," she explained. "Our more recent tool, Solis, deploys similar technology to find children whose abuse material is distributed on the Dark Web."  

With all these tools working together, officers have already made an impressive impact.

By Kutcher and Cordua's estimates, Thorn has helped officers identify more than 6,000 trafficking victims and 2,000 traffickers in the past year. "We always want to communicate that the technology itself doesn't do the work — it is the officers on the front lines who ultimately find the child," Cordua explained. "Our tools help them be faster and more efficient at their jobs." 

A small team based in the United States develops Thorn's tools, but Cordua noted, "Our products are used globally in eight countries. That is the power of technology — you can build something that scales efficiently globally and can have significant impact." 

Thorn believes everyone's actions — from donations to partnerships to volunteers — make a difference. You certainly don't have to be a celebrity to make an impact. 

Cordua encourages those interested in joining the fight against child sexual abuse to educate themselves on the issue, first and foremost. 

"A new film, I Am Jane Doe, was just released on Netflix. It chronicles the experience of three children sold online in the United States," she explained. "It is an eye-opening piece that anyone interested in this issue should see." 

Cordua also recommended getting "involved in [their] communities to reduce the vulnerabilities of children" on the local level. Thorn's website also provides additional resources anyone can use to take action.

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