FEATURED:

Sex trafficking bill necessary step to protect women, children from enslavement

Sex trafficking bill necessary step to protect women, children from enslavement
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With the passage by the Senate of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), Congress has come down decisively on the side of exploited women and children, and against website owners who intentionally support the sale of trafficking victims. Now, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE will have the chance to do the same.

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Having moved off seamy back streets to venereal websites like Backpage.com, human trafficking has flourished on websites protected from criminal and civil prosecution by the Communications Decency Act. FOSTA will allow prosecutors to use state sex trafficking and prostitution laws to prosecute these websites, and creates a new federal crime specifically addressing the issue. After months of resistance from tech community giants like Google, websites will finally be held responsible for online sexual slavery on their platforms, something that should have been done long ago.  

A little background history is useful to understand the necessity for a legislative solution to the problem. The most infamous actor in the business is Backpage, which for too many years hosted an “adult services” section that accounted for a majority of online commercial-sex ads. Active in over 90 countries and valued at over half a billion dollars, this website acted as a hub of human trafficking, especially that of minors. Notably, it was involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.   

If these dry numbers don’t move you, a documentary on Netflix called “I Am Jane Doe” will. It tells the harrowing story of real American girls enslaved through ads on Backpage and their unsuccessful lawsuit against the company for knowingly hosting their pimps and buyers.   

Although the owners of this website did not deny that their site was used for prostitution and the sale of minors, they claimed they were simply hosting content for others and not liable due to an immunity granted by the Communications Decency Act. They won in court, even after a 20-month-long Senate investigation of the company showed that they were, in fact, assisting and promoting the sexual exploitation of children.  

The report explains how staff and special electronic filters screened ads and edited them to conceal any traces of prostitution and child-sex. This, in effect, coached customers — including pimps selling the services of children — on how to clean up their posts to avoid alerting law enforcement to their illegal activities. Telling words like “Lolita,” “fresh,” and “school girl” were automatically scrubbed, and if a customer tried to post sex with a “teen,” they would be told to redraft the ad.   

Backpage has since shut down their “adult services” section, bowing to government scrutiny and financial pressure from credit card companies who refused to do business with the tainted company. (However, a quick check into their “massage” section shows advertised services of “fresh” and “very young” girls.) And on Friday Craigslist, another classifieds-like website, shut down its personal services section in response to FOSTA’s passage.

Of course, internet-enabled prostitution and sex trafficking occurs on other sites and uses the same refined tactics perfected by Backpage. And the Department of Justice estimates than more than half the current victims of sexual exploitation are 17 years old or younger.  

The failure of the civil suits shows that the solution for stopping Backpage-wannabes has to be legislative. FOSTA is fine-tuned to stop internet-enabled sex trafficking without dampening the freedom and exuberance of the Internet or exposing web-hosting sites to frivolous lawsuits. This is because the law would make the companies liable only if they knowingly supported the buying and selling of sex by traffickers as Backpage did. And even small, start-up tech companies have access to the computing power needed to perform advanced analytics and real filtering that stops bad actors and flags instances of criminal prostitution.  

One tech company that has consistently endorsed the bill, Oracle, describes Internet platforms as being designed and equipped to analyze exactly what comes across their sites, and that this capability can even be obtained as a service in the cloud. Oracle’s September letter to the Senate in support of legislative action explains that the success of internet companies hinges “on their ability to precisely analyze . . . data and content . . . and not just to “blindly run platforms with no control of content.” Other rich and influential industry giants, like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter, have long been lobbying hard against FOSTA, but have offered no workable, self-enforced solution.

In September, prior to the tech companies’ volte face, Susan Molinari, vice president of public policy for Google, wrote in a blog post that “Backpage acted criminally to facilitate child sex trafficking, and we strongly urge the Department of Justice to prosecute them for the egregious crimes.” She failed to mention that Google, through their generous financial support of the Center for Democracy and Technology, filed amicus briefs in support of Backpage. They supported Backpage in order to maintain the status quo where companies operate with high profit and low risk, and opposed legislative solutions for the same reason.

Executives from Twitter, Google, and Facebook have faced scrutiny and criticism for their opposition to tougher measures against trafficking on their platforms, which may have been the catalyst to their surrender. In any case, prompt signing of the bill by President Trump will make it much less likely that criminal online traffickers can profit from exploitation and despair, and much more likely that thousands of women and children will be protected from enslavement and abuse.    

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy advisor for The Catholic Association.