Sen. Rob Portman has attracted 64 Senate co-sponsors for a bill that could prevent online trafficking of young people for sex, and yet the bill sits idly waiting to be put to a vote.
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Mr. Portman worked hard to attract the bipartisan support he needed for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The bill would amend the Communications Decency Act so that sites such as Backpage.com could no longer exploit it to protect traffickers using it to post ads for sex with underage, and often unwilling, trafficking victims.
A two-year Senate investigation led Mr. Portman and others to focus their efforts on Backpage.com, which has used online classified ads to facilitate sex trafficking for years.
Legal efforts to shut down the ads have always run into the same road block — the Communications Decency Act, as it was originally written in 1996, shields sites that host such ads for illegal behavior by providing them immunity.
Backpage.com and others were able to knowingly sell classified ads for sex and even go so far as help their clients write the ads in sneaky ways to avoid attracting attention from law enforcement, the Senate investigation revealed. No law prevented this and online ad hosts continued to make money from human traffickers.
Experts believe Backpage.com alone is connected to about three-quarters of the cases of child sex trafficking in the United States.
SESTA, supported by law enforcement, anti-human trafficking advocates, and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children alike, would close that loophole and hold sites like Backpage.com accountable.
Of course, human traffickers will likely seek out new ways to reach customers. And the fight against human trafficking must go on and include efforts to cut off the demand from these “johns.”
But even a temporary or partial interruption of their trade could save lives. And in this case, a law that effectively shuts down just one classified ad site’s trafficking business would immediately thwart three-quarters of all child sex trafficking.
“It’s beyond bipartisan, obviously,” Mr. Portman told The Blade’s editorial board. “It’s beyond politics. And it will enable survivors to get some justice they deserve.”
Democrats Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.), Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), and Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) joined Mr. Portman, John McCain (R., Ariz.), and John Cornyn (R., Texas) as key sponsors of the measure.
The bill has faced opposition from tech industry giants including Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, which had concerns that revising the Communications Decency Act would open the companies up to future liability for unknowingly hosting illegal content. Proponents have assuaged some of these concerns by assuring them that the bill’s narrow focus is on facilitators that are knowingly breaking the law.
Today Mr. Portman will join colleagues and anti-trafficking organizations in a Washington rally to mark Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Senate leaders should take note when they see the demonstration.
Mr. Portman has proven he has the 60-plus votes he needs to get the bill through the Senate. The Senate Commerce Committee held hearings on the matter before passing SESTA unanimously out of committee.
Now that tax reform is accomplished, there should be nothing distracting Senate leaders from this important issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) should bring the bill forward for a full Senate vote.
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