Calls for Whistleblower Incentives at Congressional Hearing on Online Wildlife Trafficking

On April 28, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee held a hearing entitled “Wildlife Trafficking and the Growing Online Marketplace.” The hearing focused on ways the U.S. can combat the multi-billion dollar industry of online illegal wildlife trafficking. Multiple expert witnesses at the hearing told the Committee that increasing protections and incentives for whistleblowers would be a key step in tackling the issue.

The hearing was held by the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. Representative Jared Huffman (D-MO), the Chair of the Subcommittee, began the hearing by outlining the scale of the online illegal wildlife trafficking industry. “Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion dollar transnational criminal enterprise and it’s the fourth most profitable type of transnational crime,” Huffman said. He also noted in his introduction that during the hearing, the Subcommittee would be “looking at how complicit online social platforms, like Facebook, enable these harmful, illicit practices.”

Fish and Wildlife’s Testimony: A Missed Opportunity

The first part of the hearing featured testimony by, and a question and answer period with, Stephen Guertin, Deputy Director for Policy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Unfortunately, at no point during this part of the hearing did Guertin or any member of the Subcommittee mention whistleblower rewards as an aspect of FWS’ enforcement efforts.

A number of major wildlife crime laws, including the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act, contain whistleblower reward provisions authorizing the payment of monetary rewards to individuals who provide information about wildlife crimes. Research by whistleblower advocates found that FWS severely underutilized these reward provisions and that the proper utilization of whistleblower rewards could be a “game-changer in wildlife trafficking detection and deterrence.”

In February, Whistleblower Network News (WNN) made the rules and regulations governing FWS’s whistleblower rewards program publicly available for the first time. FWS amended the rules following a scathing 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on their reward policies. However, given that the rules were only made publicly available in response to WNN’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, it is clear that FWS is still not prioritizing the use of whistleblower rewards.

Whistleblower advocates argue that whistleblowers are an invaluable tool in fighting wildlife trafficking. Congress has passed laws enabling FWS to use rewards to help combat illegal activities like wildlife trafficking but the FWS has failed to properly employ the tool. In the hearing, Guertin and the members of the Subcommittee discussed a number of ways that FWS can improve its policing of online wildlife trafficking. However, they did not discuss the full utilization of whistleblower rewards, despite not requiring Congressional action.

Wildlife Experts Call for Whistleblower Rewards and Protections

Whistleblower rewards were a topic of discussion in the next portion of the hearing, however. Following discussion between Guertin and the Representatives, a number of expert witnesses provided testimony on the issue.

The first expert witness was Gretchen Peters, Executive Director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO). ACCO is a network of nonprofits, university professors, and citizen investigators that tracks multiple online crime sectors, including wildlife trafficking. According to Peters, “[t]he world’s largest markets for wildlife crime are right inside your smartphones. The biggest social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, and WeChat have become ground zero for wildlife crime syndicates to connect with buyers, market their illegal goods, and move money.”

Peters outlined simple steps that social media companies like Facebook could take to help combat trafficking but also pointed to a couple Congressional actions. Peters stated that ACCO “support[s] the passage of H.R. 864, the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act, that will be introduced again this year.” She explains that “[t]his bill has critical provisions for fighting wildlife crime online, and it establishes a whistleblower program that provides financial incentives, plus crucial anonymity protections for relators of wildlife crime.”

Peters thanked the nine Members of the Subcommittee who sponsored the bill last Congress: Don Young (R-AK), Aumua Amata Coleman (R-AS), Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Debbie Dingle (D-MI), Ed Case (D-HI), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Darren Soto (D-FL) and Nadia M. Velázquez (D-NY).

The second expert witness at the hearing also argued for increased incentives and protections for wildlife whistleblowers. Danielle Kessler, the Acting Director of United States International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) provided testimony after Peters. Though she did not endorse any specific pieces of legislation, Kessler listed eight recommendations that she encouraged Members of the Subcommittee to consider “while evaluating next steps.” One of these recommendations was: “Incentivize reporting and protect whistle-blowers who expose online wildlife trafficking.”

In March, WNN published an editorial calling for Congress to reintroduce and pass the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act. The editorial states that “[w]ildlife crime whistleblowers deserve the same, or better, protection as those of corporate whistleblowers.”

Holding Social Media Companies Accountable through the SEC

In her testimony, Peters also mentioned that she is “leading a team of whistleblowers who filed a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about rampant organized crime activity on Facebook, including wildlife crime.” The National Whistleblower Center (NWC) is a partner of ACCO and involved in using the SEC’s whistleblower program as a means to combat online wildlife trafficking.

NWC has a large campaign centered around holding social media companies accountable. Combating online wildlife trafficking is a central aspect of the campaign, but it is also concerned with stopping terror and hate content and the sale of stolen antiquities. To date, NWC has worked with whistleblowers to file four whistleblower petitions with the SEC about wildlife trafficking on Facebook.

NWC explains that “Facebook is a publicly-traded company, and under U.S. Securities laws, publicly-traded companies cannot profit from illegal activities. By failing to disclose the activities like wildlife trafficking taking place on the site to investors, Facebook is putting the company—that is, its shareholders—at financial risk.”

Stephen M. Kohn, the Chairman of the Board of NWC and a whistleblower attorney at Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto, states that “[i]t is intolerable that a corporation with the wealth and international reach of Facebook can play a major role in the ongoing extinction crisis, which has already claimed the last male Northern White Rhino, by selling products from animals on the critically endangered species list.”

In her testimony, Peters echoed this sentiment, stating: “if it’s illegal to do it in real life, it should be illegal to host it online.”

Conclusion

The Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife called this hearing to listen to experts discuss ways to combat online wildlife trafficking. Multiple experts told the Members of the Subcommittee that incentivizing whistleblowers through rewards would be part of an effective approach to the problem. It remains to be seen whether the Members will heed the advice of the experts.

Watch:
Wildlife Trafficking and the Growing Online Marketplace

Read:
The Experts’ Testimonies

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