The Senate on Tuesday introduced an amendment to a law that protects the hosts of websites from liability for content posted by others to go after sites such as Backpage.com that have been criticized for facilitating child sex trafficking.
The legislation, along with a similar bill in the House, sets the stage for a battle between Congress and some of the Internet’s most powerful players, including Google and various free-speech advocates, who believe that Congress shouldn’t regulate Web content or try to force websites to police themselves more rigorously.
The bill, titled the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, would amend the Communications Decency Act. It is sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and a bipartisan group of 19 other senators, some of whom served on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which focused on Backpage.com in its probe of online sex trafficking. The subcommittee, chaired by Portman, issued a report in January saying that Backpage “knowingly facilitated the criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls” by editing ads posted by pimps to remove offensive language.
Backpage has fended off many civil and criminal actions aimed at shutting down its sex-related ads by citing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that no website “shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Backpage has argued that it merely hosts ads created by others and so has no liability. The Washington Post revealed last month that Backpage uses a contractor in the Philippines to solicit sex ads from other websites and also posts sex ads on other sites to attract more customers.
After The Post published its articles, Portman, Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and three other members of Congress called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pursue a criminal investigation of Backpage. The Justice Department has not publicly responded to that request.
The proposed law would clarify that Section 230 does not preclude prosecution of state or federal criminal laws dealing with sex trafficking of children; does not prohibit civil suits related to sex trafficking; and ensures federal liability for publishing information designed to facilitate sex trafficking.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child trafficking between 2010 and 2015, which it found “directly correlated to the increased use of the Internet to sell children for sex.” The center said that 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives each year involve ads on Backpage. The Senate report said that more than 93 percent of Backpage’s ad revenue in 2011 came from its adult section, reaping $135 million in gross revenue in 2014, with projected revenue of nearly $250 million by 2019.
“Stopping trafficking is one of the great humanitarian and human rights causes of the 21st century,” Portman said in a statement introducing the bill. “For too long, courts around the country have ruled that Backpage can continue to facilitate illegal sex trafficking online with no repercussions. The Communications Decency Act is a well-intentioned law, but it was never intended to help protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us. This bipartisan, narrowly-crafted bill will help protect vulnerable women and young girls from these horrific crimes.”
Portman has been passionate about combating child sex trafficking, including hosting showings around Ohio of the documentary film “I Am Jane Doe,” about the suspected role of Backpage in the problem. In a recent speech on the Senate floor, Portman said: “The survivors of human trafficking have told me, ‘Rob this has moved from the street corner to the smartphone.’ And the smartphone is where Backpage.com dominates.”
“Until our investigation showed Backpage was actively facilitating sex trafficking, the company had repeatedly used the federal law that protects online platforms to escape accountability for the disgusting crimes it aided,” said McCaskill, a former prosecutor. “But even as we’ve helped deny Backpage its legal shield in these cases, we need a broader effort to stop the next Backpage, before it starts. And that’s what this bipartisan bill is all about—better protecting Missouri’s families from sex trafficking by making clear to any company considering going into business with sexual predators, that the law won’t protect them from responsibility.”
Backpage has stated that it monitors and removes thousands of ads and helps law enforcement track down pimps and rescue trafficked children. Some say that targeting Backpage will only displace the sex ads to other websites, that Backpage is more responsive to police than other sites, and that closing Backpage’s adult ads wouldn’t address the underlying problem of adult male demand for underage commercial sex.
In April, Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) introduced a slightly broader bill in the House which now has 101 co-sponsors. In addition to amending the Communications Decency Act, it also seeks to amend the federal criminal code to say that any website provider who publishes information from anyone, “with reckless disregard that the information … is in furtherance of” sex trafficking of a person under 18 “shall be fined … or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that recently published a report on the Internet groups who oppose changing the decency act, issued a letter last month to the chairmen and ranking Democrats of the committees considering Wagner’s bill, calling on them to schedule hearings immediately. “Internet freedom,” the group wrote, “must not come at the expense of children who are sex trafficked.”
Tom Jackman has been covering criminal justice for The Post since 1998, and now anchors the new “True Crime” blog.