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NAFTA negotiations could make sexual violence America’s top export

NAFTA negotiations could make sexual violence America’s top export

Dec. 24, 2016 — that’s the night that 16-year-old Desiree Robinson was murdered by the man who purchased her for sex on Backpage.com.

It was Desiree’s mother Yvonne Ambrose’s testimony to a Senate committee in September 2017 that marked a critical shift in the center of gravity in what had been a losing battle by anti-sex trafficking advocates to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

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Ambrose’s heart-wrenching account of her daughter’s sexual exploitation and senseless death stripped away the ability of any legislator in the room that day to feign ignorance of the fact that some Internet platforms existed for the sole purpose of profiting off the sale of people for sex.

Further, because of perverse court interpretations of Section 230, those platforms were shielded from civil liability or state criminal prosecution — even if they knowingly facilitated sex trafficking, the victim was a child and that child was murdered.

Yet, Ambrose’s story and those of other mothers’ whose children became public sexual commodities in online red-light districts were no silver bullet. It took several more months of relentless effort before Congress passed FOSTA-SESTA, the legislative package which amended the CDA to restore survivors’ right of civil action and empower state criminal prosecutions.

Why?

In the battle over passage of FOSTA-SESTA, anti-trafficking advocates found themselves in a face-off against Big Tech.

In tech’s corner, the players included the likes of Google and the Internet Association (whose membership includes Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and many others) and their nonprofit emissaries like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Engine.

Seeking to preserve the competitive advantage over brick-and-mortar businesses bestowed on it by Section 230, Big Tech vociferously opposed efforts to amend the CDA as a threat to their bottom line. As Fordham University School of Law Associate Professor Olivier Sylvain has explained:

. . . profits in this context also are the spoils of a legal regime that effectively absolves online intermediaries from minding the harmful third-party user content that they host and repurpose for commercial gain. They are the benefits of a legal protection that almost no other entity in other legislative fields enjoys.

In other words, it was in craven self-interest that the tech sector opposed amending the CDA, while exploiting the banner of civil liberty with claims that FOSTA-SESTA imperiled free speech and even the future of the Internet.

Yet, what of the civil liberties of Desiree Robinson? What of her free speech? What of her future?

Undaunted by their FOSTA-SESTA setback, Big Tech has moved on in their efforts to preserve and even expand Section 230 protections using a multi-pronged attack. First, in June, EFF sued to have FOSTA-SESTA declared unconstitutional. The outcome of those proceedings is yet to be determined.

Erstwhile, the Internet Association has led the charge to have old Section 230-like language baked into NAFTA. If successful, this end run around the legislative process would export the tech sector’s “immunity” from intermediary liabilities to Mexico and possibly Canada.

Gravely concerned, sex trafficking survivors and anti-trafficking advocates sent a letter alerting Congress to Big Tech's policy laundering maneuvers.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, they realize that if Big Tech succeeds here, the prospects of similar language becoming boilerplate for future trade negotiations with other countries is high. The result: global export of criminal and civil immunity for websites that facilitate sex trafficking.

Such a reality would be nothing short of a sex-trafficking apocalypse.

The prostitution marketplace’s profitability hinges on delivery of “the goods” to those seeking to buy people for sexual use. To that end, internet-based platforms make “prostitution shopping” as easy as shopping for a used car.  

Pre-FOSTA-SESTA this convenience and relative anonymity, combined with the legal impunity provided to the website operators by Section 230, created an explosion of sexual exploitation.

Now, if via trade agreements, website operators supplying people for sexual exploitation around the world are given immunity to operate, efforts to curb international sex trafficking will be exiguous at best.

Third, a massive public relations campaign has been unleashed which characterizes FOSTA-SESTA as a danger to those in the sex trade. One point this stream of propaganda fails to mention is that there is no such thing as safe prostitution any more than there is safe Russian roulette.

Indeed, if the internet makes prostitution safe, why is Desiree Robinson dead? And not only Desiree, but the other 242 individuals ranging in age from 3 to 71, whose murders the anti-trafficking advocacy groups Legal Momentum and I Am Jane Doe have identified as occurring as a result of ads on websites like Backpage and Craigslist?

The question that most people fail to ask in the debate over whether prostitution facilitated by online platforms makes it safer is “Just who do these forms of prostitution make safe?” Of course, the relative social invisibility that online prostitution platforms provide make prostitution safer — safer for the buyers and the pimps.

As has been documented by Dr. Melissa Farley, “women and children can be controlled in indoor prostitution in ways that they cannot be controlled on the street. They can be locked in their rooms, heavily drugged, restrained, and beaten.”

Farley also explains:

“Women who sell sex report high levels of physical and sexual violence, including verbal abuse, threats and intimidation — one UK study found that 63 percent of women in street and indoor prostitution had experienced violence. . . . A study of prostituted women from nine countries found that two-thirds met criteria for post traumatic stress disorder which shows how profoundly stressful prostitution was for them.”

What we know about prostitution advertising websites is this:

  • They facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking.

  • People who genuinely consent to sex are not paid; every instance of prostitution is by definition a case of sexual coercion whereby payment is used as inducement to engage in unwanted sex.

  • Victims of sex trafficking are by definition victims of serial paid rape, thus victims of many, many, many rapes.

  • Rape is sexual violence.

  • Thus, websites that promote prostitution and facilitate sex trafficking don’t mitigate sexual abuse and violence — they normalize, exploit, fuel and profit from it.

In other words, sexual coercion and violence is an intrinsic reality of every transaction these websites facilitate.

Ultimately, allowing the kingpins of sexual exploitation to escape criminal culpability and civil liability in order to safeguard the special interests of Big Tech via NAFTA would be a victory for unadulterated corporate greed, and could make Internet-facilitated sexual violence a major American export.

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