U.S. Takes Giant Step Toward a Sex Trafficking Free Internet: CDA 230 Amended with Passage of FOSTA-SESTA

CATW International April 13, 2018

In a groundbreaking victory for victims and survivors of online sex trafficking, FOSTA-SESTA, which targets websites that have knowingly facilitated sex trafficking and pimping on their platforms, was signed into law Wednesday after it passed the Senate on March 21 with a 97-2 vote. The new law allows victims and survivors to seek civil remedies, at both the federal and state levels, from website companies that have knowingly profited from their exploitation. Bad actor websites, like Backpage.com, will no longer be able to escape liability by hiding behind section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA 230).

Since the Senate passed FOSTA-SESTA and prior to its signing into law, many websites shut themselves down, presumably because they had knowledge that they were engaged in potential criminal conduct online. Also, a number of online platforms began to reevaluate their policies, taking a closer look at whether or not their sites had inadvertently promoted sex trafficking and pimping. Multiple review boards, where sex buyers flocked online to rate the women and girls they exploited, also began to shut down their operations.

On April 6, the FBI seized Backpage.com servers and the site shut down in the U.S. and Canada. A grand jury in Phoenix brought a 93-count indictment against seven people, including co-founder Michael Lacey, for money laundering and facilitating sex trafficking. The case is ongoing. Meanwhile, on Thursday, CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of money laundering in California and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the company pleaded guilty to human trafficking.

Survivor leader Melanie Thompson, who was trafficked in New York City at the age of 12, told us why she believes FOSTA-SESTA is necessary and why she is hopeful the cases against Backpage.com will proceed:

“It was Backpage that made my experience in prostitution worse for me and better for my pimp He made me write the ads and profited three times more using Backpage. The sex buyers who found me on Backpage were the most violent and demanding; they didn’t care that I felt violated and degraded. Backpage helped my pimp keep them coming.”

This legislative success would not have been possible without the brave survivors, family members of victims of online sex trafficking and social justice activists, who have been advocating for years to amend CDA 230. We are also grateful to the lawmakers who listened to survivors and understood it is our national responsibility to hold those engaging in and profiting from criminal conduct online accountable. Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. deserve a special thanks for steadfastly leading the way on this bi-partisan effort.

CATW will continue its legislative initiatives around online sex trafficking and keep fighting until we have a world without sex trafficking, including on the internet.