The U.S. House of Representatives has adopted landmark legislation designed to assist prosecution of online websites that facilitate the sex trafficking of minor children. The bill, known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), was approved last week by the House on a strong bipartisan vote of 388-25.The legislation was sponsored by Representative Ann Wagner of St. Louis County, who has been a relentless crusader against human trafficking since her election to Congress in 2012. Wagner has championed efforts to enable prosecution of websites that feature classified advertising where sexual “services” of minors are offered or solicited.
The most notorious and nefarious of these insidious websites in Backpage.com. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that the human trafficking industry uses the Backpage site to market young girls enslaved in the sex trade. Owners of Backpage have been accused of knowingly allowing the site to be used for such purposes, and editing ads to conceal the fact that sexual access to minor children is for sale.
Online prostitution portals like Backpage have escaped prosecution because of immunity language contained in the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA). That language exempts online businesses from criminal or civil liability if they did not originate content that appears on their websites. Attorneys for Backpage have consistently argued that they are merely an online forum where messages are exchanged between users of the site.The FOSTA bill amends the CDA to makes it a federal crime to own, manage, or operate an interactive computer service with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person. Enhanced penalties may be imposed if it can be proved that the online business facilitated the prostitution of five or more persons “in reckless disregard of the fact that such conduct contributed to sex trafficking.” The bill also specifically authorizes victims of sex trafficking websites to recover civil damages and restitution from perpetrators of the child sex trade.
“In today’s high-technology age, sex trafficking is hiding in plain sight online, and as this horrific crime has moved from the streets to the Internet, it has become even more prolific,” Wagner said. “Companies like Backpage are the enablers of modern-day sex slavery. We are now sending a clear message: Businesses that sell human beings online can no longer do so with impunity.””FOSTA will provide more prosecutions of these bad actor websites and put more predators behind bars,” Wagner observed. “It will also give victims a pathway to justice and provide a critical deterrent, so that fewer businesses will choose to facilitate the sex trade, and fewer victims will ever be sold.”
Congresswoman Wagner bemoaned the fact that Missouri is an exchange point for nationwide human trafficking networks. “We know that St. Louis, given its convention and business and sporting activities, and given its central location and focus of the interstate system–it is sadly a hub for sex trafficking enterprises.”Representative Wagner has been previously successful in advancing legislation in the House to amend the Communications Decency Act to target online sex portals. However, those bills have died in the Senate due to the vigorous opposition of technology giants like Google and Facebook, and other Silicon Valley corporations. This year, similar legislation in the Senate sponsored by Senator Rob Portman is expected to gain bipartisan momentum to win approval.
Cybercrimes investigators nationwide have described Backpage.com as “a playground for pimps and traffickers.” It is estimated that the company generates more than $10 million a month from their online classified ads marketing sexual encounters. Backpage has an active presence in 97 countries and is valued at more than $500 million.The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that over 75% of the approximately 10,000 documented child sex trafficking reports it receives each year involve minors whose “sexual services” have been advertised on Backpage.com. NCMEC says there has been more than a 1000% increase over the last several years in the child sex trafficking reports it receives.
Representative Wagner says that is because online sex customers believe they have a minimal risk of being caught due to the perceived anonymity of internet-based solicitation. “Online customers log onto websites and order a young girl into their hotel room as easily as if they were ordering a pepperoni pizza.”