Pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act to hold bad actors accountable
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How is it that Backpage.com can get away with making millions in profits while facilitating and promoting human trafficking? The answer lies in a federal law that is long overdue for revision.

We can all agree that technology has changed everything. We now “friend” people that we have never met. We can buy things from places we have never been. We see things happen around the world in real time. But for every way that Amazon uses technology to deliver products, there is a “dark” corner used by criminals -- from terrorists to drug dealers to scam artists.

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In 1996, Congress passed a law which was designed to promote open communication on the internet. At that time it made sense. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was important for the development of the internet as we know it today. And it means that today’s companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are not responsible for what their customers post on line.

Even today, in most situations, the law makes sense. Libel on Twitter is the responsibility of the person who posts it, not the company that provides the platform. And it has a history in the law that existed before we had an internet. For instance, a landlord is not generally responsible for a tenant who commits a crime in the apartment.

What doesn’t make sense is that our internet version of the law is absolute. In the pre-internet version, there is a level at which the “landlord” who knows that the premises will be used as a crack house or a meth lab can be held responsible. This is often invoked where a landlord profits from the criminal enterprise while feigning ignorance of how the property is being used.

The CDA does not include that provision. It provides absolute safe harbor protection for an internet provider that makes millions in profits while pretending that they are unaware that they are facilitating prostitution, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. This has to end.

As prosecutors, we believe that no one who profits off the victimization of the most vulnerable people in our communities should be given a free pass. In the “brick and mortar” world, we hold people accountable who sell materials that they know are intended for criminal purposes.

And they can’t just ignore the obvious. If you make someone a fake ID, you can’t pretend to be surprised if it is used in a criminal enterprise. When you sell bulk pseudoephedrine out the back door, you don’t get to claim that you had no idea that the buyer was going to make methamphetamine.

The evidence is clear that there are certain marketplaces online which knowingly provide a place where vulnerable people are bought and sold and where they are forced to have sex against their will. The fact that this takes place on the internet should not prevent us from seeking justice from ALL of the participants in this despicable trafficking.

Right now there is a bill in Congress called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. Introduced by Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE (R-Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the measure already has wide bipartisan support. The bill would allow victims of sex trafficking to sue internet companies that facilitated the crimes committed against them so they can get the justice they deserve. It would also reverse the safe harbor provided to what was a fledgling internet in 1996, allowing state and local law enforcement agencies who are on the frontline fighting these trafficking crimes every day to take action against these cynical companies. We also support the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, introduced by Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Joyce BeattyJoyce Birdson BeattyThe nearly 60 Dems who voted for impeachment Lawmakers put their beer brewing skills to test for charity Pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act to hold bad actors accountable MORE (D-Ohio), that tackles the same problem.

Passing this law has nothing to do with censorship. It is about protecting the most vulnerable among us from exploitation. For too long, rogue web sites have pretended that, with their heads in the sand, they cannot see the pain and misery that is caused by sex trafficking. It hasn’t stopped them from cashing the checks. We urge lawmakers to pass this bill as soon as possible.

Michael O. Freeman is president of the National District Attorneys Association.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.