Sex trafficking victims
September 29, 2017

Sex Trafficking Victims Support SESTA. Congress Needs to Act.

Sex trafficking victims have a clear message for Congress: Take immediate action to protect us. Do what you must to prevent more women, children, and men from becoming victims of online sex trafficking.  The status quo is failing to protect the most vulnerable. 

More than 100 sex trafficking survivors recently sent a letter to Congress explaining why they support the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) (S. 1693). This crucial, targeted legislation would amend the outdated Communications Decency Act (CDA).  The CDA, as currently interpreted by the courts, gives online third-party enablers of sex trafficking broad immunity. This includes websites like Backpage.com that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.

SESTA, and a similar bill in the House called the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) (H.R. 1865), enjoy broad bipartisan support. So, clearly, this is not a partisan issue. It is simply a question of humanity. Can we, as a society, do more to ensure people aren’t trafficked and sold online for sex? The answer is yes.

The Status Quo Puts Profits Before People

To understand the depravity and injustice of the current state of affairs, consider what the Washington Post editorial board noted in July. “The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 73 percent of the 10,000 child trafficking reports it receives annually involve Backpage in some way.”

Again, that’s 73 percent. If your stomach isn’t already in knots, consider this. A United States Senate investigation found that “Backpage has maintained a practice of altering ads before publication by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality, including child sex trafficking.”

Understand, this is a company that reportedly made 80% of its revenue in 2013 from online commercial sex advertising. Under pressure, they have suspended the “adult services” section of their website. But these reforms we want are not just about Backpage. They are about any website that knowingly facilitates online sex trafficking.

49 State Attorneys General

Forty-nine state attorneys general have called on Congress to amend the law to allow them to enforce state criminal laws against websites that facilitate sex trafficking within their borders. Clearly, they want to do more to protect victims and prevent future sex trafficking, but their hands are tied by current law.

The Opposition: Big Tech

So, wait a minute. Federal law today gives broad immunity to online websites likeBackpage.com. Amending the law has bipartisan support. Sex trafficking victims are crying out for reform. They know first hand how dangerous the status quo is. Forty-nine state attorneys general are championing reform.

What’s the catch? It seems like we’re teed up for an easy win. But we face significant opposition. From whom? For starters, dozens of tech groups, think tanks, and nonprofits that receive funding from Google oppose SESTA, FOSTA, and amending the CDA.

They claim that these bills will harm Internet freedom. In fact, some think the status quo is working just fine. Others want reform, but feel FOSTA and SESTA are not the right solution.

Here’s what some of these groups recently wrote to Congress:

Section 230 allows online platforms to engage in Good Samaritan blocking and filtering of user content without risking civil liability for something that someone else said or wrote. Without these protections, online platforms as small as a personal blog or as big as Wikipedia would face a flood of frivolous lawsuits and potentially devastating filtering costs. It is no exaggeration to say that Section 230 is the law that made today’s Internet possible.

So, they’re worried about the “potentially devastating filtering costs.” However, SESTA and FOSTA would narrowly amend section 230 of the CDA to protect Internet freedom while better protecting sex trafficking victims.

The Costs of Failing to Amend the CDA for Sex Trafficking Victims

Clearly, tech groups are concerned with their bottom lines. But why not show an equal or greater degree of concern for the victims of sex trafficking? You know, for the actual devastating emotional, psychological, and physical costs they experience?

Also, what have any of these tech companies actually done to prevent sex trafficking? Indeed, for the thousands of children and adults sex trafficked online every year, not enough.

It’s time to listen to the victims. As the father whose child is a trafficking survivor said, “Children are not acceptable collateral damage.” Let’s stop treating them that way.

Katherine Blakeman

Katherine Blakeman

Director of Communications

Katherine Blakeman joined the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) as Director of Communications in August of 2017.  She works to foster a community of people who want to restore human dignity and end sexual exploitation through digital outreach and social media marketing.  Katherine also develops digital, communications, and press strategies for the organization in an effort to engage with an increasingly broader audience.

Prior to joining NCOSE, Katherine served as Communications Director for two members of Congress and previously as the Communications Deputy at Heritage Action for America, where she blogged, conducted social media outreach, and joined radio shows across the country to discuss the organization’s priorities and goals.

Katherine participated in the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute fellowship at the United Nations Youth Conference in July of 2011, which sparked in her a passion for human rights issues and for speaking out for those living in poverty or a cycle of exploitation, particularly those who suffer from sexual exploitation.

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