Op-Ed Commentary: Bipartisan Effort Could End Online Child Sex Trafficking

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One victim of sex trafficking began her ordeal when she was 15. She was sold through the website Backpage.com for sex to men across Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. She was raped over 600 times over the course of four months.

Another victim was sex trafficked through Backpage for three years — starting when she was 14 — in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Over those three years, she was raped thousands of times. A third victim was sex trafficked when she was 15 in Massachusetts and Florida.

A film, “I Am Jane Doe,” documents the struggle of Backpage’s victims to hold the website accountable. A U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations staff report shows that Backpage.com aids and abets sex traffickers of minors.

The victims took their cases to court, but the court ruled the cynical, exploitative website is shielded by a key Internet law, which is staunchly defended by the tech industry.

The current interpretation of that law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, enables rogue websites like Backpage.com to use it as a shield. This interpretation, pushed by the tech industry, keeps child sex trafficking alive and allows websites like Backpage to avoid accountability to victims and their families. Now, finally, there is bipartisan congressional action underway to change that, clarify the law’s intent, and enable these exploitative websites to be held accountable.

The bipartisan Senate bill, S. 1693 — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 — was recently introduced by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), and has 27 co-sponsors, including both Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ann Wagner’s (R-MO) H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, has 111 co-sponsors, including seven Florida representatives. They are: Gus M. Bilirakis (R-12), Charlie Crist (D-13), Alcee Hastings (D-20), Thomas Rooney (R-17), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-27), Dennis Ross, (R-15) and Frederica S. Wilson (D-24).

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides that a website can’t be held liable for actions by third parties. Court decisions have expanded the Sec. 230 protection to shield the likes of Backpage. While abusive websites that facilitate sex trafficking hide behind the cloak of CDA Sec. 230, too many in the tech industry blindly and reflexively claim that needed amendments would undermine Internet freedom. Big Tech giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, more concerned about their bottom lines than the greater good, are fighting any attempt to even tweak Sec. 230 so that rogue websites like Backpage can be held accountable.

Many tech companies and other defenders of CDA Section 230 claim it promotes and protects free expression on the Internet, but the bills’ narrow amendments go after criminal activity, not content. And, finally, the solid wall of tech opposition is beginning to crack. Tech giant Oracle; CoStar Group, publishers of Apartments.com; and 21st Century Fox have endorsed narrowly amending Section 230.

Internet freedom must not come at the expense of children who are sex trafficked. Just as the First Amendment does not allow you to shout “fire” in a crowded movie house, or to assist hit men and drug dealers in their criminal activity, CDA Section 230 must not be allowed to protect a criminal business that is built on sex trafficking.

This exploitation and abuse must stop. Congress is taking the necessary action. However, the tech industry and its surrogate groups are going all out to stop it.

The bipartisan efforts to amend and clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act will ensure that websites that knowingly or recklessly facilitate online sex trafficking can be held liable so that victims can get justice. This bipartisan bid to amend the law could well prove to be the rare exception and actually pass in this time of gridlock in Washington. All of Florida’s federal lawmakers should be on board.

John M. Simpson is Privacy Project director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group. He can be reached at [email protected].

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