Congress' Just-Passed Child Sex Trafficking Bill Has Already Had An Impact

“My hope is that it will create a deterrent for those who think it's OK to sell kids online."

In one of the most divided and partisan Congresses in recent memory, a near-unanimous vote on legislation showed Republicans and Democrats can agree on at least one thing: trying to stop child sex trafficking.

The principal goal of the Allows States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act was to amend a law that absolves online companies of liability when users post illicit content. For years, websites like backpage.com or Craigslist have had trouble regulating advertisements that can be used to traffic people for sex, but because of the law protecting them, those victims had no course of action to sue a website. 

And the bill has already had an impact.

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Carol Smolenski, the Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, an anti-child trafficking policy organization in the United States, said this bill is just the latest milestone of progress in the fight against sex trafficking. 

Sen. Rob Portman signing the bill and a thank you to ECPAT. Jason Matthews 

"We are thrilled about it," Smolenski told A Plus in an email. "My hope is that it will create a deterrent for those who think it's OK to sell kids online.  Until now there has been no hurdle for them at all.  Most children who are bought and sold in the sex trade are sold on these websites, especially backpage.com."

Law enforcement officials and activists in the fight against sex trafficking have been fighting for a bill like this for a long time. It marked an unusual loss for the internet industry, which — until now — had been able to protect itself in court using Section 230 of 1996 Communications Decency Act, which says that websites cannot be sued for content their third-party users post. That law stands even for websites that are actively moderating the content they host.

That reality has left victims of sex trafficking and those hoping to fight it feeling helpless. If a young child had been advertised and sold repeatedly on a website like backpage.com, there is very little recourse they can take against the website who hosted their advertisement. 

"This law will put in place a few steps to push back against the blanket immunity the owners of these sites have enjoyed," Smolenski said. "Until now, those who were harmed could not even get to the stage of making their case against these websites in court, because the courts were deciding that websites were immune from any kind of liability. That is just not right."

Smolenski said the bill also gives law enforcement new tools to help build a case against traffickers. 

A photograph of the bill signed by Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Sydney Blumenthal and Sen. Claire McCaskill with congratulations and thank yous to ECPAT.  Jason Matthews

But not everyone is pleased. Despite passing the Senate in a 97-2 vote, the dissenting voices — Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden — were outspoken about their opposition. Wyden said the bill will open the floodgates for lawsuits against smaller websites who will not have the means to fight back in court.

"People following this debate might ask why some of the biggest internet companies like Facebook support it," Wyden told Reuters. "It's because it will pull up the ladder in the tech world, leaving the established giants alone at the top."

The bill has had immediate repercussions. The website craigslist.com announced on Friday that it was shutting down its popular "personal" sections on its website, where sex advertisements are often placed.

"US Congress just passed HR 1865, 'FOSTA', seeking to subject websites to criminal and civil liability when third parties (users) misuse online personals unlawfully," Craigslist said in a statement. "Any tool or service can be misused… We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking Craigslist personals offline. Hopefully, we can bring them back someday."

Still, Smolenski said the near-unanimous vote at a time of such bitter partisan politics only illustrate the widespread and universal abhorrence to sex trafficking. When survivors tell their stories about being trafficked, she said, nobody can reasonably take the side of the businesses profiting off of it. 

"There has been a long-time division between those who see prostitution as a woman's right and those who see it as an oppression and expression of patriarchy, racism and colonialism," she said. "We stand with the survivors who support the new law and we stand against the companies that make millions off the abuse of both adult and child trafficking victims."

Cover image via Shutterstock / 271 EAK MOTO.

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