It’s reasonable that after 20 years of an extremely low-risk environment for online sex trafficking, websites be given more responsibility to curb the problem.

The United States House and Senate have overwhelmingly passed a measure to amend the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) to now hold websites accountable for intentionally promoting or facilitating prostitution.

The CDA gives expansive immunity to internet service providers from claims based on content created by third parties. In the interest of free speech and a robust e-economy, courts have historically interpreted the CDA very broadly giving extensive protection for websites based on claims brought based on third party posts.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The Exponential Growth of Online Sex trafficking

Reports of online child sex trafficking have increased by more than 800% from 2010 to 2015, which, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is “directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.”

Under the CDA protection, the internet created a business model for sex traffickers to operate with high profits, little risk and at-home convenience. Traffickers (often called pimps) pay websites for ad space. Traffickers then post pictures of their victims online for sale, adding sexual phrases for “marketing” purposes.

When Craigslist, the then market leader in adult ads, closed its adult ad site in 2010, Backpage.com, a distant second in terms of market share, filled the vacuum. The company’s gross revenues grew from $29 million in 2010 to $135 million in 2014. In 2015, Backpage.com derived more than 90% of its earnings from its adult ads section. Much of this came from the U.S., as California alone was responsible for over 14% of Backpage’s worldwide income from June 2013–May 2015. Today, 73% of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports from the public each year involve ads on Backpage.com. The National Association of Attorneys General aptly described Backpage as a “hub of human trafficking, especially the trafficking of minors.”

Victims of this exploitation can be found everywhere. In each of these examples, the girls were sold online on Backpage.com:

  • Atlanta: a 12-year-old girl, whose pimp regularly tasered her, was forced to work while pregnant with his child.
  • New York City: a 13-year-old girl was regularly beaten and even kicked down a stairwell for trying to escape her pimp.
  • Miami: a pimp tattooed his name on a 13-year-old girl’s eyelids.
  • Seattle: a 15-year-old girl was sold for sex more than 150 times.
  • Chicago: a 16-year-old, suffering from depression, left home. Three weeks later, she was advertised for sex on Backpage and murdered at the hands of her Backpage buyer.

Over the years and through several decisions, the courts decided that even though “Backpage has tailored its website to make sex trafficking easier, the remedy is through legislation, not through litigation.”

The bi-partisan legislation, HR 1865, known as the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (FOSTA), amends the Communications Decency Act to restrict the immunity given to internet service providers, making them liable for the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution. HR 1865 also allows victims to sue sites that facilitated their being sex trafficked and gives states standing to bring suits, as well.

Tech companies argued that the bill is too broad and would undermine the current structure of the internet. But is selling children for sex acceptable collateral for maintaining the technology status quo? Should our society be okay with the fact that selling children and people against their will is the “cost of doing business” for websites?

The internet has grown exponentially since 1996 when the CDA was enacted. It’s reasonable that after 20 years of an extremely low-risk environment for online sex trafficking, websites be given more responsibility to curb the problem. They have had decades to prepare for this, according to Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America, Mary L. Cleary who explains that the amendments do “nothing more radical than update the CDA to include sex trafficking – a crime that did not exist in 1996 – and clarify that the immunity provision is not intended to protect those who knowingly act to assist human sex traffickers.”

South Carolina Public Officials Act

On February 27th, the House voted 388-25 to pass FOSTA, and on March 21st, the Senate followed suit with a 97-2 vote.

Almost every South Carolina Representatives supported the measure. Senator Lindsey Graham was one of the first co-sponsors of the bill. In October, Senator Tim Scott took time to meet a victim who was sold on Backpage.com for 108 days when she was 15-years-old. Sen. Scott listened to her story of how Backpage had profited from her being sold, yet, because of the CDA, she had no remedy when she brought suit against them. By that afternoon, Sen. Scott became a co-sponsor of the bill.

In August 2017, Attorney General Alan Wilson, along with 49 other Attorney Generals, showed strong leadership by sending a letter to Congress supporting protection for sex trafficked victims by amending the CDA.

Now the bill’s passage hinges on the signature of President Trump who has shown support for the measure.

Learn more about human trafficking in South Carolina here.

Brooke Mosteller Burris, esq.

Director of Policy, Lynch Foundation for Children

Chair, S.C. Tri County Human Trafficking Task Force

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