Congress Passes Major Legislation To Fight Online Sex Trafficking And Establish Criminal Liability

By Tara Carey, Equality Now

There are not a lot of news headlines these days about members of US Congress almost unanimously voting together in a bipartisan display for a piece of legislation. However, the Senate recently voted to pass the historic FOSTA-SESTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), a bill establishing criminal and civil liability for websites that facilitate sex trafficking, such as by hosting ads and other content linked to a sex-trafficking enterprise. It passed in the House by 388-25 and in the Senate by 97-2.

This is a huge success that will help put a stop to girls and women being sold online for sex. Women’s rights organization Equality Now‘s End Sex Trafficking team has been campaigning for the introduction of FOSTA-SESTA.

We have been calling on the Senate to pass the bill without further delay so that it can be signed into law. Our work has included lobbying Senators and calling on our supporters to contact their representatives. We are also part of a coalition that has been lobbying the House.

Shelby Quast, Equality Now’s Americas Director, says:

“We are thrilled to see the Senate close a loophole and take steps to stop the purchase and sales of women and girls for sex over the internet and urge the President to sign this bill into law without delay. We will stand with survivors in holding companies that knowingly sell women and girls’ bodies online for sex accountable under the law. We urge tech companies to step and find solutions to end this scourge from taking place on their platforms.”

In the United States, the Internet is now the most frequently used platform that traffickers and “johns” use to buy and sell women and children for sex. 63% of child sex trafficking survivors are advertised online and more than 100,000 escort ads are published online every day in the US.

Although the United States Communications Decency Act (CDA) Section 230 was never intended to legally protect websites that facilitate sex trafficking, that is exactly what has been happening. In 1996, Congress passed the CDA to create an Internet where ideas could be exchanged freely and to give Internet service providers the ability to regulate explicit material on their sites.

CDA Section 230 has protected websites from liability for third-party published content. However, in its current form, the CDA has also allowed the Internet to become a safe haven for sex traffickers. Despite repeated efforts to bring Internet companies that facilitate and profit from online sex trafficking to justice, a majority of US courts have deemed that Section 230 shields companies from criminal and civil liability – even in cases when they knew of or participated in posting advertisements for sex from minors.

The bill has run into vigorous opposition from technology companies and digital rights groups that argue that it excessively holds companies responsible for user-generated content. Many in the tech community – including Facebook and Google – have cited concerns about the curtailing of free speech, the weighty burden of regulating content, and how regulation could have a “chilling effect” on startups.

But in November 2017, prominent tech industry groups changed their position and came out in support of the legislation. Passing FOSTA-SESTA is an important advance in ridding the Internet of sex trafficking – not just in the US but around the world.

The new legislation will open up legal avenues for state prosecutors and victims to take steps against social networks, websites and online advertisers that fail to act sufficiently against users who post exploitative content. This includes allowing websites that facilitate sex trafficking to be sued.

For years, internet companies such as Backpage.com – the world’s second largest classified advertising site – have knowingly promoted and facilitated online sex trafficking, often of children. In January 2017, a Senate report released following a two-year inquiry by the homeland security subcommittee. The report found that around 93% of Backpage.com’s revenue – estimated at $150 million in 2016 – was from “adult services” ads.

Backpage.com actively modified ads so they would pass by internet sensors. They did this by knowingly aiding criminal sex trafficking of women and children on its website, with employees being instructed to delete flagged keywords associated with trafficking — such as “Lolita,” “rape,” amber alert”, and “teenage”— to conceal the true nature of ads before publishing them online. Documents additionally revealed that Backpage also created and solicited sexual ads.

However, despite repeated efforts to bring internet companies that facilitate and profit from online sex trafficking to justice, a majority of US courts, including the First Circuit Court of Appeals, have deemed that Section 230 shields the companies from criminal and civil liability – even in cases when they knew of or participated in posting advertisements for sex from minors.

Backpage.com has been targeted in a number of lawsuits over recent years, and has successfully defended itself by citing Section 230 of the decency act, which states that websites cannot “be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

On 27 February, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA, H.R. 1865) which was amended in February by California Representative Mimi Walters (Walters Amendment) to allow websites that facilitate sex trafficking to be sued and held liable.

Now it has been passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate it can now go to the President to be signed into law. The bill’s Senate sponsors, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), describe it as a “milestone in our fight to hold online sex traffickers accountable and help give trafficking survivors the justice they deserve.”

 

 

 

About Equality Now:

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Their international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). For details of Equality Now’s campaigns, please visit www.equalitynow.org.

 

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