It’s hard to believe, but children in Ohio—and across America—are increasingly being exploited and sold for sex on the internet.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015. They found this dramatic spike to be “directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.” Sex trafficking victims in Ohio have told me “This has moved from the street-corner to the smartphone.”
I recently visited a residential therapy center in Ohio for girls ages 13 to 18. Around 60 to 80 percent of them, I am told, were victims of sex trafficking. I had the opportunity to visit with some of these girls and their counselors, and I heard heartbreaking stories. One website kept coming up, as it so often does: Backpage.com.
You might not have heard about this website before, but it’s a big business—operating in nearly 100 countries and worth more than half a billion dollars. And it’s the commercial leader in online sex trafficking. According to one industry analysis, eight out of every ten dollars spent on online commercial sex advertising in the U.S. goes to Backpage.
In January, after an 18-month investigation by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, we released a report which found that Backpage had been facilitating criminal sex trafficking for years. And they covered up these crimes in order to increase their profits.
Despite this, courts have consistently ruled in Backpage’s favor when victims or prosecutors have brought charges against the company. The courts cite a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act that provides immunity for third-party websites, like Backpage, from criminal activity on their site. In one ruling, the First Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the immoral nature of these actions but defended their legality because of this immunity. The court opinion welcomed congressional action, stating, “The remedy is through legislation, not litigation.”
I believe the Communications Decency Act is a well-intentioned law that has an important purpose. But the law should not protect those who knowingly facilitate illegal sex trafficking. That’s why this week I introduced the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act—with more than two dozen of my colleagues in the Senate—to ensure websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking can be held liable and that victims can get justice.
This bill simply clarifies Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—the clause that courts credit to giving third-party providers blanket immunity from crimes committed through their websites. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will put in place three narrowly-crafted and common-sense reforms.
First, this bill will allow victims of online sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitate crimes against them.
Second, it helps law enforcement by allowing the prosecution of websites that knowingly assist, support, or facilitate a violation of already existing federal sex trafficking laws.
And finally, it will enable state law enforcement, not just the Department of Justice, to take legal action against businesses that violate sex trafficking laws.
This narrowly-crafted bill will preserve liability protections for good actors that proactively screen and block offensive material, but it will hold accountable bad actors like Backpage who currently have immunity—even though they are knowingly selling women and children for sex online.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is the legislation our courts have been calling for, our state attorneys general have been calling for, and most importantly, what victims and their families have been calling for. Congress has the opportunity to help girls and women in Ohio—and across the country—who have had their most basic human rights stripped from them.
We can never undo the trauma sex trafficking victims have been forced to endure. What we can do, and what this bill will do, is fix the flaw in the justice system that allows people who are complicit in this evil crime to profit from human misery and suffering.
Rob Portman is a Republican U.S. Senator from Ohio.