The U.S. Senate has approved legislation amending the federal Communications Decency Act to remove legal immunity for internet websites that knowingly facilitate online advertising for the child sex trade. The bill was endorsed with strong bipartisan support last week on a 97-2 vote. It had been previously approved by the House, and now goes to the desk of President Trump, who has pledged to sign it.The bill, entitled the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), was sponsored by Congresswoman Ann Wagner of St. Louis County. It is similar to a Senate measure co-sponsored by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.The legislation is aimed at internet websites that are populated by classified advertising offering and seeking sexual encounters. Many of these sites are used by human trafficking enterprises to market the “sexual services” of minors to individuals who are patrons of underage sex.
The most insidious of these websites is the internet corporation Backpage.com. The company has an active presence in 97 countries around the world. A substantial body of evidence reveals that Backpage.com is a cesspool of solicitation and sale of children who are in sexual bondage to human trafficking networks.The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that over 75% of the approximately 10,000 verified child sex trafficking calls it receives each year involve minors whose availability for sexual contact has been advertised on Backpage.com.
State and local prosecutors and cybercrimes teams have been frustrated in their efforts to convict prostitution rings and child sex agents because of a provision in the Communications Decency Act. That language exempts online businesses from criminal and civil liability if they did not originate content hosted on their websites. Judges in numerous cases have affirmed the culpability of websites like Backpage in facilitating sex trafficking, but had no choice but to dismiss criminal charges because of the language protecting online portals.
The FOSTA bill amends the CDA to make it a federal offense to to own, manage, or operate an interactive computer service with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person. The legislation would also empower victims of sex trafficking websites to seek civil damages and restitution from enterprises which are perpetrators of the child sex trade. “For far too long, bad actors like Backpage hid behind this outdated law that allowed them to knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children online,” Senator McCaskill said after passage of the bill. “We took on a powerful company that stonewalled us at every turn. This bill will ensure that survivors get the justice they deserve, and stop the next Backpage before any website can claim another victim.”
Senator McCaskill, who is herself a former prosecutor, was a key figure on a Senate committee which held high-profile hearings investigating the operations of Backpage.com. The committee uncovered evidence that employees and contractors for the company had active involvement in the wording of ads to mask advertisements for child sex while still communicating their clear intention.
Congresswoman Wagner applauded the relentless efforts of anti-trafficking groups in helping win passage of the measure. “FOSTA will finally give local, state, and federal prosecutors the tools they need to put predators behind bars. Congress does not believe–and never did believe–that sex trafficking is an acceptable consequence of the free and open internet. I look forward to President Trump signing FOSTA into law.” Congresswoman Wagner and Senator McCaskill have fought the last few years against technology giants like Google and Facebook who worked to stymie any amendments to the CDA. This year the Internet Association relaxed their opposition, stating they want to be “a key partner with policymakers on this important issue.”
As a result of passage of FOSTA, another popular yet sleazy website has announced they will be eliminating the “personals” classified advertising section from their online presence. Craigslist said they were “regretfully” taking the action, because they “can’t take such a risk without jeopardizing all our other services.” Craigslist has played the same games that Backpage.com has in recent years. They closed out sections advertising “erotic services” and “adult services,” but simply moved those ads to the “personals” section of their website. In today’s hook-up culture, numerous websites and apps are online marketplaces for scheduling casual sexual encounters customized to a person’s sexual tastes, no matter how deviant. All of these sites will now be forced to re-evaluate their business models as Craigslist quickly chose to do.