Elite class of sex traffickers shielded by online advertising laws

Elite class of sex traffickers shielded by online advertising laws
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Last week, jurors in Boston sentenced Marvin Pompilus to six-and-one-half years in state prison for sex trafficking six women. Like most sex traffickers today, he advertised the women he sold via online classified advertising websites like Backpage.com.

Pompilus will now spend roughly the next 2,370 days behind bars. To some this may sound like good news, but for many of us working in the trenches to stop sex trafficking this victory feels hollow.

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Locking up the individuals who, in state after state, traffic a steady supply of women and children for exploitation in the sex trade is absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, they represent the bottom feeders in the sexploitation food chain.

To significantly curb sex trafficking, law enforcement needs the ability bring down the individuals feasting at the top. But this is the great obstacle in today’s fight to stop sex trafficking: the individuals at the top of the sexploitation food chain — who provide and profit from online classified advertising connecting sex traffickers with the men seeking to buy people for their sexual use — have special immunity from prosecution. This immunity comes from a now archaic law, the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  

As it currently stands, these advertisers — effectively elite sex traffickers — are a protected class of criminals.

At least that’s what the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals held in Doe v. Backpage. The court found that even if Backpage had participated in the crime of sex trafficking by running advertisements, that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) shielded the company from claims filed by child sex trafficking victims.

Yes, you read that right. Even if companies like Backpage knowingly facilitate sex trafficking the court believes that the CDA gives these guys a get-out-of-jail free card.

I’m talking about Backpage’s top brass. Rich, powerful men who sit in corporate offices and who enjoy the support of the tech industry lobby.

So, as best they can, law enforcement officials investigate, arrest, and convict the Marvin Pompiluses of the world. Meanwhile they can’t touch, despite repeated attempts, the individuals who provide and profit from the operational infrastructure that makes the sex trade a growth industry.

The fact that CDA immunity has thus far proved impenetrable, has proved irresistible to copycat “entrepreneurs” wanting to get on the sex trade bonanza. In Seattle alone, law enforcement has identified more than 130 websites where you can buy people for sex. One of those websites was averaging 34,000 ads a month last year. This demonstrates the staggering demand for commercial sex acts, and as demand outstrips supply, more and more women and children will be sexually trafficked to meet that burgeoning demand.

Believing that something must be done to address this situation, some members of Congress have launched a valiant effort to rein in online sex trafficking. It’s been a very difficult journey, but there is light on the horizon.

Tuesday, February 27, the House of Representatives will vote on what is known as the FOSTA + Walter’s SESTA package. FOSTA, (H.R. 1865 - sponsored by Rep. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerGOP congresswoman says she opted out of NRCC run because McCarthy had 'a different plan' GOP women face steeper climb in Trump era Midterm results shake up national map MORE [R-Mo.]) with an amendment offered by Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) adding in the language of SESTA (S. 1693 sponsored by Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanDrug company to offer cheaper opioid overdose treatment after hiking price 600 percent The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Congress to act soon to avoid shutdown On The Money: Trump touts China actions day after stock slide | China 'confident' on new trade deal | GM chief meets lawmakers to calm anger over cuts | Huawei CFO arrested MORE [R-Ohio] and Richard Blumenthal [D-Con.]) will make the vital CDA changes that sex trafficking survivors, state attorneys general, a state legislature, and advocates have been asking for. This combination of legislation will provide victims with the ability to pursue civil rights of action and for state attorneys general to bring cases.

For all those desiring to end sex trafficking and preserve human rights, Tuesday is a big day. It’s the day the House will decide whether or not it will #ListenToSurivors or come down on the side of the kingpins of sex trafficking.

Lisa L. Thompson is vice president of Research and Education at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.