the Justice Department on Friday seized the Backpage.com website and raided the home of its cofounder.
The site, long a haven for sex ads, began shutting down Friday morning, as FBI agents began taking down a network of web pages all over the world . A notice on the site said it had been seized as part of an enforcement action by the FBI, the IRS and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Today ECPAT-USA issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Department of Justice's shut down of online marketplace Backpage.com. The seizure of Backpage.com and it's affiliated websites comes just two weeks after the passage of FOSTA-SESTA. Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, said:
"One of ECPAT-USA's main goals in supporting FOSTA-SESTA was to shut down Backpage because it's the primary online marketplace for buying and selling of children's bodies. Kids who are abused in the commercial sex trade are affected by the trauma they endure for the rest of their lives. It is long overdue for this website to be shut."
In one of the most divided and partisan Congresses in recent memory, a near-unanimous vote on legislation showed Republicans and Democrats can agree on at least one thing: trying to stop child sex trafficking.
The principal goal of the Allows States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act was to amend a law that absolves online companies of liability when users post illicit content. For years, websites like backpage.com or Craigslist have had trouble regulating advertisements that can be used to traffic people for sex, but because of the law protecting them, those victims had no course of action to sue a website.
And the bill has already had an impact.
On March 6, 2018, Congresswoman Ann Wagner, joined by Congresswomen Joyce Beatty, Mimi Walters, and Carolyn Maloney, thanked ECPAT-USA and other leading advocacy organizations for their their input and expertise as the House considered H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. The Congresswoman also directed the letter to the more than 100 organizations that sent the February 26 support letter to Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi.
This afternoon in a floor vote of 388 to 25, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1865 the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or (FOSTA). The bill reported out of the Judiciary Committee was strengthened by an amendment by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). This crucial amendment to the original bill by Rep. Ann Wagner, restores trafficking victims’ rights to pursue websites like Backpage.com for their role in human trafficking. The amendment also brings the House legislation more closely in line with the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) legislation in the Senate, which has garnered 66 cosponsors and awaits a vote by the full Senate.
“This has been a long journey for these victims. They have fought for years in the courts, and they have have spent years in the halls of Congress trying to get justice. This bill is a giant step forward for them and we will keep fighting until the President signs it into law.” — Carol Smolenski, Executive Director ECPAT-USA
ECPAT USA has been an early advocate for trafficking victims seeking their day in court. These efforts have been repeatedly stymied by websites relying on a loophole in the law referred to as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Federal Courts have called on the Congress to provide clarity to the law, and that is what the House has done today.
"For a very long time, Backpage has been making a tremendous profit from sexual abuse of countless women and children. It is imperative that Backpage is held accountable for its nefarious actions—that is justice for its victims." — Iryna, Survivor-advocate
ECPAT-USA is the leading policy organization in the United States seeking to end the commercial, sexual exploitation of children through awareness, advocacy, policy, and legislation. ECPAT-USA is a member of the ECPAT International network, with offices in 93 countries. For more information, visit ecpatusa.org.
The Congress has been making important progress in reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 is the provision that provides legal protection to websites like Backpage.com, which facilitate the sale of children online. Congress has introduced two bills—SESTA in the Senate (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) in the House. The two bills take different approaches in crafting a legislative solution, but the core of what they seek to do is similar. Both bills have enjoyed broad-based, and bipartisan support, and both bills have made real progress in moving through the legislative process this year.
Before Congress adjourned for its annual August recess, over 20 U.S. Senators introduced S.1693 the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. This bill is the culmination of two years of intense investigation into the website Backpage and companies like it that are known to facilitate the sexual exploitation of children and adults.
Led by Senators Portman (R-OH) and Blumenthal (D-CT) this bill would make three streamlined clarifications to the Communications Decency Act, to make anti-trafficking laws easier to apply to internet service providers. The legislation would allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitated human trafficking and child exploitation. It would eliminate special federal legal protections for websites who are assisting in the violation of federal sex trafficking laws, and it enables state law officials to take action against internet businesses violating federal sex trafficking laws.
The focus of this bill is a seemingly innocuous provision of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. It prevents internet service providers from being treated as the “publisher” of information provided by an internet service user. “Publisher”, in this context, is a legal term used in cases involving slander and libel. Federal courts have taken this provision to provide near blanket immunity to anything internet service providers do—including aiding and abetting in the sale of children on the Internet.
The CDA was passed by the Congress to limit sexually explicit material. It has been perverted by lower court decisions to actually protect the very thing it was designed to stop. Section 230 of the CDA was designed by Congress to encourage computer service providers in the 1990s to “police themselves” as regulators could not do it all. Instead of self-policing, Section 230 has now been used to create an atmosphere of lawlessness with websites actively enabling child sexual exploitation. In direct contradiction to its intent, courts have interpreted one provision of the Communications Decency Act to protect online businesses like Backpage, whose whole business model subverts public decency. Representative Bob Goodlatte was one of the primary authors of the Section 230 provision. He is now a co-sponsor to amend the law, to make clear to the Federal Courts that they are misinterpreting Congressional intent.
The Tech industry opposes these amendments and cloaks itself in Free Speech, claiming Section 230 has made the modern internet possible. The world of technology is radically different today than it was 21 years ago. If nascent internet startups needed sweeping protection from litigation to thrive, that can’t possibly be argued now. Facebook is now a Fortune 100 Company, and rated #3 for fastest growing companies in America for 2017. When the CDA passed in 1996, there were 12 million Americans subscribed to services like Prodigy. Now billions of people are online every day engaging in commerce and activity that was unthinkable at the time the law passed.
Abusers and criminals get free speech, victims have to spend their lives trying to retreat from the internet. They get no speech at all. With the formation of “cyber mobs” generated by notorious hate groups who seek to harass and threaten people defending social justice, Section 230 is now actually impeding free speech.
Online companies are using Section 230 as a shield to avoid laws that businesses with a physical presence must comply with. Online companies are using Section 230 to unfair commercial advantage. As it stands, if you publish a physical magazine and you fill it with child sexual abuse imagery (child porn) you will be subject to enormous civil and criminal liability. It does not make sense that we have one standard for the physical world, and another for the cyber one. The existence of libel and defamation laws for newspapers and magazines has not resulted in some great restriction on speech or limited innovation in publishing. All forms of publishing flourish in this country, expressing every viewpoint and every interest.
At this stage, the internet is not that fragile, nor is its future threatened. It seems more likely that the tech community’s defense is about something else than freedom and innovation. It seems much more likely that this is about bottom line decision making, and a disregard for human harm over immediate profits.
Section 230 was expressly designed to protect Good Samaritans. We should insist the courts stop protecting the bad samaritans. This will not harm the Googles and Facebooks of the world. They already have robust policies to prevent abuse. But it will ensnare sites like Backpage, which were designed to aid and abet child sexual exploitation.