The fight to hold Backpage.com accountable for its role in the sex trafficking of women and girls continues. In January, Backpage shut down its “adult services” section after a report by the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found the company complicit in facilitating commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. However, the shutdown of the section has not deterred sex traffickers from using the site. Ads selling women and girls for sex have migrated to Backpage’s “Women Seeking Men” section in the U.S., while the “adult services” section remains up and active in other countries around the world.
Backpage still refuses to acknowledge its role in the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls. Hiding behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), Backpage is claiming that the decision to shut down its “adult services” section was due to government censorship and claims this is a violation of the First Amendment. Written in 1996, in the early days of the internet, CDA 230 protects websites from liability for third party content. However, the legislation was not intended to protect their participation in criminal activity.
To clarify CDA 230’s bearing on online trafficking cases, Congresswomen Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA) to the House of Representatives in April. FOSTA seeks to grant victims and states the opportunity to combat online sex trafficking and prosecute websites that, with reckless disregard, allow the publishing of content that promotes this crime. The bill is receiving wide-ranging bi-partisan support in the House and was endorsed by many anti-trafficking organizations, including CATW.
In July, a Washington Post investigation found further evidence that Backpage does indeed have a hand in controlling and creating the ads posted to its “adult services” section. These findings, in addition to the evidence uncovered in the Senate Subcommittee report, galvanized extensive bi-partisan efforts, headed by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in the Senate leading to the introduction of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA), which CATW has also endorsed. SESTA would equally clarify CDA 230 and ensure websites, like Backpage, that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking can be brought to justice. Attorneys General of the U.S. are also calling for an amendment to the CDA.
Both FOSTA and SESTA are currently under consideration in Congress but are facing fierce opposition, led by a powerful technology lobby. Most of the arguments against an amendment to CDA 230 are based on myths and unfounded fears from the technology industry. In the meantime, the reality for women and girls bought and sold online remains dire and our efforts for a sex trafficking free internet, urgent.
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