A Giant Step Closer to Justice for Trafficking Victims

credit: Jonathon Colman

Anyone wondering where bipartisanship has gone in Congress should look to the lopsided passage this week in the House of Representatives of legislation that will help hold accountable websites such as Backpage.com that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. As we know from working with homeless young people at Covenant House, far too many young trafficking survivors are bought and sold on websites like Backpage.com, that have acted with impunity for years by hiding behind the Communications Decency Act. On Tuesday, thanks to the efforts of trafficking survivors, advocates and their allies, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act passed 388–25.

On March 12, the Senate is expected to take up its version of the bill, which the House bill mirrors, and which has 67 supporters at last count. That legislation has benefited enormously from the ardent advocacy of Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who have refused to back down in the face of aggressive special interest advocacy by certain deep-pocketed tech interests.

Their position makes sense. How could it possibly be lawful for a website to knowingly sell kids for sex? To coach pimps to hide the fact they are advertising young people, to help pimps edit ads to avoid banned words, but not banned deeds?

As Covenant House and more than 50 other organizations and individuals said in a letter to the House leadership, the bill “is urgently needed given the 1st Circuit ruling in Doe v. Backpage. That ruling held that even if Backpage had participated in the crime of sex trafficking, Section 230 shielded the company from the claims filed by child victims.”

When trafficking victims have tried to sue Backpage.com for marketing them, judges have looked them in the eye and told them to seek a legislative solution, as the Communications Decency Act is being read to protect websites from lawsuits and prosecution, as it does not hold them responsible for content independent users post online.

The current bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), was amended by California Representative Mimi Walters (R-CA), to align with a similar Senate Bill 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, introduced by Portman and Blumenthal. Both bills now give trafficking survivors a right of action to sue websites when they knowingly participate in illegal conduct, such as the sale of minors for sex.

The movement for reform was catalyzed last year by former Olympian-turned-documentarian Mary Mazzio, whose film, I Am Jane Doe (now available on Netflix) turned a white-hot spotlight on the problem and raised from the shadows to the masses the pervasive criminal exploitation of girls. I have sat side-by-side with Mary and survivors in the Capitol and heard Mary distill this issue to its essence, with clarity and passion that galvanizes lawmakers and their staff. And we have locked arms with many other forceful survivor voices through Shared Hope International, Rights4Girls, ECPAT USA, My Life My Choice, Truckers Against Trafficking, Sanctuary for Families, the Trafficking in America Task Force and other anti-trafficking advocacy groups. We are thrilled that we were eventually joined by the Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook, Amazon, and numerous other online companies, in endorsing both bills.

And we are grateful to the legislators who have worked long and hard on this thorny issue, balancing a free internet with the rights of vulnerable young people. As Rep. Wagner said, “H.R. 1865 with the Walters Amendment is the most effective way to empower victims, equip state and local prosecutors, and ensure websites can no longer traffic children with impunity.”

Through his spokesperson, President Donald Trump voiced support for efforts to fight sex trafficking. “He made it clear that this administration will fight to hold sex traffickers accountable and to ensure survivors have the support they need,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday. “This bill is an important step forward. And the White House appreciates the House taking action on a bipartisan basis.”

It is crucial that the Senate pass this important law, and the President sign it. Young lives are on the line.

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