The Communications Decency Act has unwittingly supported the explosion of online sex trafficking since its enactment in 1996. It is high time that something be done about it.
Websites, such as Backpage.com, that have been accused of knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, have been able to exploit a loophole in Section 230 of the CDA to escape legal and civil liability. The results have been gut-wrenching.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there was an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child-sex trafficking from 2010-2015, mostly attributed to the Internet marketplace.
Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) has been tenacious in trying to close this loophole. Mr. Portman, along with a bipartisan coalition of 19 senators, introduced the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 last week. The act would strip the protections for websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, even in ads posted by third parties. Sex-trafficking victims would also be able to sue sites implicated in their exploitation, and state law enforcement officers, not just the U.S. Justice Department, could take action against online sites hosting third-party content violating trafficking laws.
The bill is a no-brainer, despite concerns of some that it could be a step toward Internet censorship. Mr. Portman’s effort specifically targets the heinous online sex-trafficking trade, not law-abiding interactive computer service providers.
The intentions behind Section 230 were good. It makes sense to not hold Facebook or Twitter liable for what a third party posts on their sites. But a two-year investigation by Mr. Portman’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations uncovered evidence that Backpage worked with advertisers to create ads that would not raise suspicion, even when Backpage had reason to believe that the ads were trafficking women or young girls.
As recently as November, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and company founders Michael Lacy and James Larkin were cleared of pimping charges after using the Communications Decency Act defense. Several women who claimed they were knowingly trafficked on the site have lost civil lawsuits.
“Congress struck a balance in favor of free speech in that Congress did not wish to hold liable online publishers for the action of publishing third-party speech and thus provided for both a foreclosure from prosecution and an affirmative defense at trial,” Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman wrote in clearing the company officials. “Congress has spoken on this matter, and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit.”
Now Congress has revisited the issue. The legal loophole allowing for the exploitation of so many women and girls must be permanently closed.
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