Silicon Valley, stand down from battling anti-sex trafficking bill

Silicon Valley, stand down from battling anti-sex trafficking bill
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She looks like the teenage girl next door. She plays soccer and the violin, and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. After a fight with her parents over grades, in a foolish moment she runs away, meets a seedy character at a youth shelter, and within 36 hours is being sold for sex on the internet in the classified ads on Backpage.com.  

It sounds like the worst of nightmares, but it happens daily, in this case to a 15-year-old girl in Seattle with the initials of J.S. If you can stomach it, watch the Nightline interview in which J.S. and her parents (thankfully since reunited) advocate for passage of legislation to go after Backpage’s horrendous human trafficking business.   

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It is human nature to avoid looking at upsetting and ugly realities; it is Washington’s nature to avoid hard decisions by playing inside-the-Beltway games like holding hearings instead of votes. Last week, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) almost got a floor vote, but was sent for a committee hearing instead.  

Tuesday’s hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee powerfully built the case for the bill, though, and hopefully will be the catalyst for real action. It featured the heartbreaking testimony of a mother from Chicago, whose 16-year-old daughter Desiree was found online by adult men. She was sold on Backpage to a 32-year-old who strangled her when she said “she didn’t want to do this again.” 

How is it that girls are being sold for sex on websites that are operating in plain view? As Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh Sens introduce bipartisan bill matching Zinke proposed maintenance backlog fix On The Money: Trump backs off investment restrictions on China | McConnell opens door to tariff legislation | Supreme Court deals blow to public-sector unions, ruling against 'fair-share' fees MORE (R-Ohio), prime sponsor of the bill, said during the hearing pimping has “moved from the street corner to the smart phone ... with ruthless efficiency.” The biggest obstacle to justice for victims like J.S. and Desiree is not the vile men who operate sites like Backpage, it is the Communications Decency Act.

This law was passed by Congress back in 1996 when no one envisioned such abuse. Ironically, this “Decency” law grants broad immunity to internet companies so they cannot be held liable for third party content. Case after case against Backpage has been dismissed, with judges repeatedly citing the broad protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  

Portman and Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) bill, SESTA, would simply amend the Communications Decency Act to eliminate the liability protections for websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, and enable state law enforcement to go after perpetrators in addition to the federal Department of Justice. It is narrow and targeted.  

But, most big tech companies are crying that the sky will fall in on the internet if this legislation to protect young women passes. Google lobbyist E. Stewart Jeffries writes to Hill staffers asking that Senators not co-sponsor this bill because it has the “potential to seriously jeopardize the internet ecosystem.” Does Google realize how tone deaf this sounds? Untold numbers in our human ecosystem are in serious jeopardy right now, as thousands of our girls are being sold daily on the internet for sex.

Again, it’s nicer not to think about these things, but there have already been 9,700 reports of child sex trafficking so far this year — and those are only the cases that have been reported. Selling women online is not what most people have in mind when talking about a free and open internet.

Silicon Valley has some smart people, deep pockets, plenty of lawyers, and a loud voice in Washington. The victims have none of these. Technology companies can absolutely handle this update in the law and can do more to combat the dark side of the internet, as Senator Portman said in his opening statement. 

In fact, some tech companies have already endorsed SESTA, like 21st Century Fox, writing, “we are confident the narrow and tailored legislation that you have proposed will appropriately target bad actors participating in this illegal activity.” Oracle also backs the bill, saying, “Your legislation does not, as suggested by the bill’s opponents, usher the end of the Internet.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, the internet association lobbyist who had the unenviable task of testifying against SESTA offered mostly platitudes and pablum, but had some substantive suggestions for amendments. Reportedly this has led to negotiations between the bill’s sponsors and big tech companies. 

Let’s hope and pray they find an effective compromise, because women’s freedom from being trafficked is compatible with internet freedom. It has to be.

Maureen Malloy Ferguson is the Senior Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association and is on the Candidate Selection Committee for the Susan B. Anthony List. Previously, Maureen was the Congressional Liaison and spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee.