Inspiring Nottingham Research Fellows
Ben Brewster is a Nottingham Research Fellow with the Rights Lab Beacon of Excellence
Making the web safer for those at risk from trafficking and exploitation
It is hard to imagine doing my area of research anywhere other than Nottingham. The Rights Lab is one of the university’s six research beacons, and the world’s first large-scale platform for ending slavery by 2030. The Rights Lab’s expertise on diverse forms of exploitation and emphasis on taking theories and methods from across disciplines to address the issue of slavery is invaluable to me, as is the mentorship I have received from the Rights Lab’s leadership team, and the peer support from other researchers within the Lab. My fellowship has given me an academically rich, interdisciplinary research environment to further develop my skills and collaborate with experts and academics from across many disciplines.
The Rights Lab’s commitment to being challenge-led, and its support for UN Sustainable Development Goal 8.7 – the end of slavery – is also important to me. I like the idea that research has practical applications outside academia, and the opportunity to work on my own research agenda within the Rights Lab and with the support of the wider university to ensure that my work informs the actions of individuals, communities, business and governments is exciting. The Lab’s standing within the anti-slavery sector is also a real asset, and has connected me and my research with governmental, intergovernmental, private and civil society users from across the globe.
How would you explain your research?
My research seeks to investigate how online spaces and places are used to facilitate human trafficking and exploitation. The internet has proliferated into all facets of society, significantly changing the way we seek employment, look for accommodation, purchase goods and services, and how we interact socially. It’s also being used by people to lure, coerce, deceive and groom others into a range of exploitative situations. This includes offering fraudulent employment and accommodation opportunities to people that result in labour exploitation, offers of travel and companionship that result in forced sex work, and the grooming, peer influence, and coercion that results in the criminal exploitation of children in the illegal supply of drugs.
My fellowship has given me an academically rich and interdisciplinary research environment to further develop my skills and collaborate with experts and academics from across many disciplines.
Through my fellowship I’m hoping to understand more about the role that the internet, different online places, and computer-mediated communication plays in enabling these different types of exploitation, and to try and imagine and design new ways that we might work to protect people from harm online.
How will your research affect the average person?
Online spaces are part of our everyday lives. Website and social media platforms are coming under increasing pressure to act against the misuse of their platforms in sharing and spreading content that’s illegal, harmful or against their terms of service. Through my fellowship, I want to target the protection of some of the most high-risk users online – those who might otherwise end up trafficked and exploited in situations of forced and severely exploitative labour, forced prostitution, and forced criminality, whilst focusing on imagining websites and platforms that we are confident and feel safe using, and that are designed with our safety, privacy and wellbeing in mind.