Free speech? Or freedom to exploit?

Passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act won’t limit civil liberties. It will strike a blow to the illegal sex trade and stop tech companies from profiting from human pain.

By Anne K. Ream

“You don’t feel like a person when you’ve been treated like a product.”

Photo: Lynn Savarese

Those are the words of Jennifer Gaines, a human trafficking survivor who was a fourteen-year-old runaway when she encountered her first pimp. A few years later, the exploitation that started on the streets of Minneapolis moved onto, the world’s most profitable online advertiser for human trafficking.

“I was one of the first people advertised on Backpage,” says Jennifer. “When someone responds to an ad on a website, you have no idea what you are walking into, or who these people are. You experience every type of abusive relationship possible. Then you read reviews of yourself on a website, and it just feels bad.”

“Whether it starts online or offline … the damage is the same.”

The law, however, doesn’t see it that way.

The $99 billion global sex trade is being increasingly powered by the internet, where traffickers and pimps like Jennifer’s can operate with anonymity and impunity. According to Thorn, an agency that studies technology’s role in sex trafficking, 63% of the child sex trafficking survivors the agency surveyed were at one point sold online. Websites like Backpage post more than 100,000 escort ads every day. They reap these profits because of, and not despite, federal law.

When victims of sexual exploitation, including minors and their parents, filed civil lawsuits against Backpage, company executives successfully argued that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — a provision originally intended to protect free speech and legal commerce — provided them with broad immunity from prosecution for the ads running on their website. That same argument has been employed by Backpage to avoid state criminal accountability for human trafficking.

This is particularly troubling because Backpage has proven to be an active, and not just passive, participant in sexual exploitation. After a two-year inquiry, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a January 2017 report that makes clear that Backpage knew that children were being trafficked through its website. Reports also show that Backpage edited user-generated ads to obscure their true purpose, evading detection from law enforcement.

In response to the Senate report — and to the testimony of survivors like Jennifer — Senators Portman (R-Oregon) and Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which seeks to close a loophole in the Communications Decency Act that allows websites to escape legal liability for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking. More than a quarter of the lawmakers in the Senate have signed on to support this important bill.

Dozens of other organizations, including World Without Exploitation — a national coalition representing more than 100 human rights and gender justice groups — are also actively engaged in the fight for the law. This type of cross-sector collaboration of artists, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and survivors of human trafficking, speaks to the growing, nonpartisan consensus that our laws have not kept up with the evolving ways in which traffickers are using the internet.

But pushback against passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is coming from Silicon Valley, where some are expressing concerns about digital freedom — despite the fact that the Internet Association has supported the legislation.

Perhaps this should not be surprising: A Stanford University study presented last week at a meeting of the American Political Science Association shows that otherwise progressive tech industry executives are strongly resistant to regulation of online businesses. But the notion that there should be a lesser set of restrictions placed on digital — versus analog — business activity flies in the face of what we know about trafficking. The illegal sex trade is no less odious simply because it is operating online. Wherever it happens, whenever it happens, this is an industry in which profits are built on human pain.

And while some have argued that any infringement on the activity being facilitated by websites like Backpage is tantamount to an attack on civil liberties, that fear is not supported by the facts. The language in the bill was narrowly crafted to apply only to those who have knowingly engaged in online sex trafficking. It does not limit the controversial or critical online speech protected by the first amendment.

Instead, passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will clarify the original purpose of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, enable those who have been exploited online to file civil suits against the companies that have knowingly facilitated their exploitation, and allow states to enforce their existing trafficking laws, making it harder for exploiters to operate online.

Put another way, this law will strike a blow to those who buy and sell other human beings, not a blow to free speech. It will also convey something powerful to survivors of sexual exploitation like Jennifer.

“Changing this law would say that we are not willing to participate in this,” Jennifer says. “It would tell those of us who have been bought and sold online that we haven’t been forgotten.”

Anne K. Ream is a founding co-chair at World Without Exploitation, a national coalition representing more than 100 human rights and gender justice groups, and the author of “Lived Through This,” a memoir of her multi-country journey spent documenting the stories of gender-based violence survivors.