Online classifieds are a familiar part of the 21st-century marketplace. People buy and sell cars and couches on public websites every day. They find roommates there, too. But some of the same websites are used to buy and sell women and children for sex. As the Internet has grown, sex trafficking has increased substantially.
From 2010 to 2015, reports of suspected child sex trafficking to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children increased by more than 800%, a spike they found to be “directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.”
As this reprehensible illegal market has grown, one website has emerged as the industry leader: Backpage.com. One 2012 analysis by the Advanced Interactive Media Group found that more than 80% of all revenue from online commercial sex advertising in the U.S. was generated by Backpage.
While Backpage’s use as a platform for illegal sex trafficking has been understood for years, a recent report released in January of this year by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that the company knowingly and actively facilitated criminal sex trafficking — making Backpage far more complicit in these crimes than previously thought. Moreover, it covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits. We also now know from a recent Washington Post report that Backpage aggressively solicited and created sex-related ads to lure customers to its website, promoting the sale of vulnerable women and children for sex.
Despite these facts, Backpage has escaped legal justice in countless lawsuits brought by sex trafficking victims and prosecutors. The company has been shielded by a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act because courts have ruled that that the law protects companies like Backpage from liability for illicit content that third-party users post on its website, even if it facilitates criminal conduct like illegal sex trafficking. The irony is the law was originally intended to protect children from indecent material on the Internet. Twenty-one years later, it is protecting websites that sell children for sex.
In 2016, the First Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling on a case waged against Backpage by three women who were all 15 years old when they were sold for sex on the website. The court recognized the immorality of Backpage and its owners, but once again confirmed that the company was protected by the Communications Decency Act. According to the court, Congress intended to protect websites from being held liable for publishing content produced by others – a level of protection enjoyed by no other publishers – even when the result is denying “relief to plaintiffs whose circumstances evoke outrage.” No matter how much harm websites like Backpage inflict and no matter how aware they are of the harm they are causing, these websites cannot be held accountable by their victims for publishing, and profiting from, advertisements for sex trafficking. The court opinion further stated that, in order to hold websites like Backpage accountable, “the remedy is through legislation, not litigation.”
In 2013, 47 state attorneys general called for a change in the Communications Decency Act to hold knowing facilitators of online sex trafficking accountable. And 50 attorneys general from around the country just signed a similar letter calling for a change in the law.
That is why, as Co-Chairs of the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, and along with 26 of our colleagues from across the political spectrum, we have introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. This narrowly crafted legislation has the support of numerous anti-human trafficking advocacy groups and law enforcement organizations around the country.
It makes three common-sense reforms to the Communications Decency Act. First, it will allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitate crimes against them by removing the law’s unintended protection for online sex traffickers. Second, it helps law enforcement by allowing the prosecution of websites that knowingly assist, support or facilitate a violation of already existing federal sex trafficking laws. And finally, it will enable state law enforcement — not just the Department of Justice — to take legal action against businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
This bill will allow victims of sex trafficking to get justice, and it will do so in a way that protects Internet companies that are doing the right thing. Notably, we preserve the Communications Decency Act’s “Good Samaritan” provision, which protects actors who proactively block, and screen for, offensive material — thus shielding them from frivolous lawsuits.
Congress has an opportunity to fix a significant flaw in the justice system. Vulnerable women and children are having their most basic human rights stripped from them as they are bought and sold online by predators who epitomize evil. They deserve the ability to seek justice.