A Win to Help Crack Down on Human Trafficking Online

The sale of human beings for sex on the internet is one of the most heinous acts imaginable — and it occurs in communities around this country each and every day, including in North Dakota. I wrote and introduced a bill that Congress passed to help stop these crimes, and help keep our communities strong and safe.

A few years back, I teamed up with Truckers Against Trafficking to reinforce the need to build a state and nationwide coalition against human trafficking.

When I first got to the U.S. Senate in 2013, it was clear that the scourge of human trafficking was not well understood — and that education and awareness were sorely lacking. Many folks didn’t realize that it was happening in their own towns and neighborhoods — in big cities, coastal states, and across rural America and Indian Country. It was happening to runaways, homeless youth, and other marginalized children who were preyed upon by traffickers. We needed to urgently increase awareness and put forward an effective strategy to crack down on those who willfully enabled prostitution and trafficking.

After years of bipartisan work, we just achieved an important milestone in the fight against sex trafficking — Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), bipartisan legislation I helped write and introduce, to hold websites that enable sex trafficking online accountable for knowingly enabling and facilitating sex trafficking online.

Some of the most disgusting cases of trafficking we’ve seen involving children have been facilitated by the website Backpage.com. Websites like Backpage ply their disgusting trade openly and try to hide behind the First Amendment — protections that no reasonable person would believe extend to this type of abhorrent and criminal behavior. It’s been a long road to get our bill passed, and a key part of that effort was a two year investigation into Backpage.com by a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — a subcommittee I serve on. We showed complicit behavior by Backpage in facilitating sex trafficking, and we held Backpage’s executives’ feet to the fire when we compelled them to appear before the Subcommittee.

I couldn’t be prouder that we got this bill across the finish line, which was a direct result of our investigation and the tireless work of victims and advocates — including my good friend Cindy McCain — who kept up the pressure on Congress to act. And just as of April 6, Backpage.com was shutdown. I’m so proud that our investigation helped lead to this point so that no child or woman will be sold for sex through this website.

Passage of our bill shows that it’s still possible to bridge partisan divides if we put our heads down and work hard to find solutions, and I’ve made working to combat human trafficking a top priority so that all children, families, and communities are strong and safe. Here are some keys steps I took since joining the U.S. Senate that paved the way for passing our bipartisan bill:

2013

  • September 2013: In my first year in office, I led a Senate hearing to raise awareness and bring together federal, state, and local stakeholders to discuss solutions.

2014

  • I joined North Dakota community leaders to discuss ways to identify, report, and prosecute human trafficking in North Dakota.

2015

  • April 2015: I pushed to pass a bill I strongly supported with U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to protect runaway and homeless youth from getting caught up in human trafficking.
  • April 2015: I helped pass bipartisan legislation to increase prosecution of traffickers who transport victims across state lines, and to institute national ‘safe harbor’ laws to allow victims of trafficking to come forward without fear of being treated as a criminals themselves.
  • June 2015: I brought my friend and anti-trafficking advocate Cindy McCain to North Dakota to talk with local community leaders, advocates & law enforcement about collective efforts to combat these crimes on the ground.
Roundtable discussion on human trafficking with local law enforcement in Williston, North Dakota with my guest Cindy McCain on June 27th, 2017.

2016

  • March 2016: I joined the U.S. Senate in a unanimous vote to launch civil contempt proceedings against website Backpage. It was the the first time in 20 years the U.S. Senate has held anyone in contempt of Congress

2017

  • January 2017: I reintroduced a biparitsan bill with U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) to help make sure health care providers — including doctors, nurses, and social workers — have the training they need to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking.

2018

  • April 2018: Federal authorities shut Backpage down, in a huge step toward making sure no child will be sold for sex through this website — not in North Dakota, the United States, or around the world.
Press conference on Capitol Hill announcing the passage of our bipartsian SESTA bill by the U.S. Senate, with my cosponsors Senators Claire McCaskill, Rob Portman, John Thune, Richard Blumenthal, and Dan Sullivan on March 21st, 2018.
  • April 2018: The president signed SESTA into law in a major win for trafficking victims and their families across North Dakota and our country.

The victims and advocates who pressed Congress to act and kept up the pressure were so critical to the passage of this bill, and now that SESTA has been signed in to law, law enforcement will finally have a tool they’ve been missing to bring justice to those who commit some of the most horrible crimes imaginable against women and children.

This is why I came to the U.S. Senate — to work across the aisle to address major challenges, and to make a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable individuals in our country. This is how Congress should work. And on the heels of other bipartisan successes, it’s proof that Congress can make progress on critical issues if members put partisan differences aside and focus on getting things done — just as I try to do every day.