Amending the Communications Decency Act will give survivors of Sex Trafficking a pathway to justice without harming internet freedom

Tuesday, 22 August 2017 13:25 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

After years of survivors and advocates working tirelessly to tackle online sex trafficking in and out of the court system, the US Congress has acted. In April, Congresswoman Ann Wagner introduced the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.  Building on the momentum of that bipartisan legislation and the outrage spurned on by the senate hearings involving Backpage.com last January, Senators Portman, McCaskill, Blumenthal, McCain, Rubio, and others recently introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Online Act.  

The enactment of these bills cannot happen fast enough for the victims of sex trafficking that FAIR Girls works with on a daily basis, 90% of whom were sold online.  Backpage.com, the most notorious and highly profiting online advertiser where victims of sex trafficking are sold, is actively involved in the modern day sex slavery that takes place on its website. For more than five years, FAIR Girls and advocates nationwide have led a campaign to expose and hold accountable Backpage.com for its involvement. Earlier this year, Congress came to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, survivor leaders, many of whom were child victims, have bravely stepped forward and filed groundbreaking civil lawsuits against Backpage.com. Unfortunately, most of these survivors’ efforts have been thwarted to date because Backpage.com executives have hidden behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), claiming immunity for the content of their website, despite their active involvement in developing that content. Subsequently, courts across the country have repeatedly agreed with Backpage’s interpretation of the CDA and dismissed civil suits by minors and their parents, insisting that Congress must tackle this matter.

The proposed bills will do just that, and will do so by making explicit what was always intended: the CDA should not protect those that intentionally and knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, or prevent survivors from holding those that profited from their exploitation and abuse accountable.

Yet technology companies, including many who have historically contributed to combating human trafficking, such as Google, continue to assert hyperbolically that any amendment to Section 230 of the CDA will effectively kill free speech and the Internet alike. Their reasons lack merit and stand in the way of justice and protection for victims of sex trafficking.

While online advertisers, like Backpage.com (which actively drafted, revised, and otherwise contributed to the content of ads that trafficked children according to subpoenaed records), claim to be a helping hand to law enforcement, we know it is not true.

In 2012, FAIR Girls contacted Backpage.com’s abuse section to report advertisements of a known victim of sex trafficking.  A month later, the advertisements remained and it was discovered that the ads, depicting the photos of our teenage client, where actually being used to advertise a pregnant minor girl whose trafficker was later convicted.

We at FAIR Girls welcome the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act as we believe these proposed bills will give survivors a chance to hold those that profited from her exploitation and slavery accountable and seek civil damages that could be used to support her healing process.  

If either of these bills are made into law, the Internet will not cease to exist, and good Internet Service Providers diligently working to prevent their platforms from being adulterated by traffickers seeking to sell children, as well as those who are truly passive hosts with no involvement in content, will not be punished. The proposed bills will impact only those who intentionally and knowingly facilitate sex trafficking and baseless lawsuits will be dismissed.

The status quo means we stand idly by while thousands of victims are bought and sold into sex trafficking and the companies who facilitate their traffickers in order to turn a profit go unchecked.

FAIR Girls applauds the legislators that have already co-sponsored the proposed bills and encourages other legislators to support them as well. We welcome a solution-focused debate with technology industry partners to ensure that the proposed bills achieve their intended result, namely to stop those who are actively enabling sex trafficking online from doing so.  We hope the technology community will join survivors and their allies to support the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Online Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act as we seek increased protection and justice for the victims whose traffickers engaged in business with online advertisers to exploit and sell them for profit.

The goal is to ensure that victims of sex trafficking have full access to seek justice.  These pieces of legislation, if passed, will bring us one step closer to that goal.

Andrea Powell, Founder and Executive Director, FAIR Girls and Erin Andrews, Director of Policy, FAIR Girls