Senate joins House in passing law that strips websites of immunity for knowingly running sex trafficking ads
The Kentucky State Senate approved a resolution to curtail child sex trafficking by encouraging Kentucky residents, employees, and agencies to use travel brands that are combating the crime. Specifically, the resolution cites ECPAT-USA and The Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct (The Code) and recommends that people use hotels, venues, and other brands that are members of The Code.
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.
Up until now, there have been two competing bills one in the Senate called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the other in House, called Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA. The original bills took different approaches, but they ultimately ended up at the same place. They both allowed the victims of human trafficking to sue websites that knowingly assisted in the crime.
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.
The news from Washington in 2018, so far, has been mostly bad. Scandals and gridlock dominate the headlines, and the Federal government is currently staring at the possibility of a shutdown. But one area of progress stands out above the partisan bickering, and that is federal policy to combat human trafficking.
Earlier this month, another notable step was made to integrate human trafficking awareness into federal policy making. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Thune (R-SD) passed S. 1536, The Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act, a bill endorsed by ECPAT USA. The new law was signed by President Trump in time for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.
As anyone who drives America’s freeways can tell you, there are a lot of trucks and tractor trailers on the road. Current estimates put the number at 3.5 million truckers logging 432 billion miles crisscrossing the country. However, a variety of factors, from the interstate nature of trucking, to the ubiquity of unaccompanied men staying at truck stops, to CB communication, have made the trucking industry an ideal market for child traffickers.
Girls are frequently sent from truck to truck at rest stops while sex traffickers collect the money and then drive off with their victims to another jurisdiction. CNN reported last year on an alert trucker who pulled into into a gas station in New Kent County, Virginia. He noted it was quiet and isolated but a "kind of unusual" family recreational vehicle was parked nearby. "The thing that stuck out was that this was an old RV with black curtains which wasn't very family-ish," Kimmel reported. He watched as a man approached the RV and knocked before entering. Kimmel saw what he thought was a "minor female" dart out from behind the RV curtain and then quickly disappear. He immediately called the local sheriff. Police cars soon arrived, and rescued "a female in really bad shape." A man and a woman in handcuffs were also escorted out of the vehicle.
The young victim in this story was fortunate. A conscientious trucker saw something, and did not turn a blind eye. Instead, he called the authorities and they rescued a badly abused victim who had been abducted from Iowa. Truckers across the country have helped organize Truckers Against Trafficking, which shares ECPAT’s goals of preventing child trafficking. And the organization has proved to be an important ally in Washington to address sex trafficking in the transportation sector. But we need more resources, more education and more visibility in America’s highways, ports and airports, and that is what this legislation does.
The new law creates a human trafficking coordinator within the Department of Transportation to coordinate anti-trafficking efforts throughout the department. Furthermore, human trafficking education and prevention programs can now be developed out of the roughly quarter billion dollars allocated to the Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Finally, the bill creates an advisory committee at the department which will recommended changes to Department of Transportation’s policy and regulations. These recommendations and other suggested best practices will then be shared with the states.
As always, while we have supported this bill since its introduction, more remains to be done. Several states, including Texas and Illinois have introduced mandatory human trafficking training into their Commercial Driver’s License requirements. We need to make certain that drivers involved in child trafficking get more than a slap on the wrist and return back to the road. And Senator Klobuchar has legislation seeking to compensate the victims from this form of human trafficking. So, as always, our work is cut out for us. But, we also need to take a moment to congratulate Senators Klobuchar and Thune for helping us take another step in ending child sexual exploitation in this country.
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.
ECPAT’s Week of Action in DC: From Fighting Online Sex Trafficking of Children to Previewing the Legislative Road Ahead
By Faiza Mathon-Matheiu, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations
For the past 16 years, Backpage.com has been the leading website in the online sex trafficking of children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 73% of all reports of child sex trafficking occur on Backpage.com. Thanks in large part to a newly launched effort, advocates, survivors, and lawmakers are fighting back and joining together to force the company to be held accountable for facilitating the sexual abuse of children. A new documentary, I Am Jane Doe, which opens in 6 cities, including New York City, today, is mobilizing stakeholders across the country.The powerful film focuses on the battle being waged by American mothers on behalf of their middle-school age daughters who were victims of sex trafficking on Backpage.com. The film follows their gut-wrenching fight as these families attempt to hold Backpage.com responsible through the legal system for its part in this horrific form of abuse.
The film is already generating conversation among lawmakers. At a screening in D.C., members of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Rob Portman (R-OH), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) discussed the Committee’s groundbreaking investigation that uncovered the extent to which Backpage.com has engaged in the online sex trafficking of children. The following day, ECPAT-USA, Shared Hope International, and My Life My Choice in coordination with and Congressman Ted Poe held a Congressional briefing where panelists included two powerful mothers whose daughters were sold for sex on Backpage. They shared their stories about the impact it has had on their girls and their families. Now the two are at a forefront of the movement, turning their anger into activism and speaking out across the country about what needs to be done to prevent other families from experiencing the tragedies they have experienced. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Representative Ann Wagner, and Representative Chris Smith also gave remarks about the need to amend the federal Communications Decency Act so that companies like Backpage cannot continue to make millions of dollars a year from the abuse of young children.
The week started with the Second Annual Human Trafficking Symposium hosted by the McCain Institute. The Institute is a leader in convening multiple power sectors to brainstorm on policies and program to end trafficking. ECPAT-USA’s Executive Director moderated the Legislative Road Ahead panel with federal legislators in the fight against human trafficking – Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX). Each member of Congress discussed their recent success and accomplishments as well as the legislative path forward. As we look forward to the reauthorization of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act this year, strong partnerships with members of Congress will ensure that the package will strengthen the U.S. commitment to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation.