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Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Fight Online Sex Trafficking

Lawmakers proposed a bill that amends an old communications legislation that online sex traffickers use to avoid being apprehended by the law.
Image of a girl holding a sign that says "not for sale." Google Commons

Lawmakers proposed a bill that amends an old communications legislation that online sex traffickers use to avoid being apprehended by the law.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) introduced H.R. 1865, or the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, which specifically amends Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 to make it clear that the section "does not prohibit the enforcement against providers and users of interactive computer services of Federal and State criminal and civil law relating to sexual exploitation of children or sex trafficking, and for other purposes."

The amendment is being proposed in response to a court ruling that it is necessary to clarify the correct interpretation of the communications law.

Cases against online sex traffickers have reportedly been dismissed because of Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 that protects them from liability for third party content even if it involved a federal crime, according to the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam).   

One example of this is the dismissal of charges against Backpage.com, an online classified ads company operating in more than 90 countries, that runs ads selling children for sex. According to law, the company was protected from liability for the third-party ads even if they involved "participating in, profiting from, or was a co-conspirator in a federal crime." 

However, a Senate investigation conducted earlier this year revealed that the company knew the ads were selling women and children, and that it even sought the help of pimps to intentionally "disguise" the ads and hide the fact that they were selling children for sex.

The Senate investigators concluded in a report that "As early as 2006, Backpage executives began instructing staff responsible for screening ads (known as 'moderators') to edit the text of adult ads to conceal the true nature of the underlying transaction."

The Senate investigation prompted the company to remove such ads from the site's Escorts section. However, the ads were just moved to the dating section, according to filmmaker Mary Mazzio, C-Fam reported. Mazzio is behind the documentary "I Am Jane Doe," which tackles the subject of sex trafficking.

Backpage.com has 80 percent market share of online sex ads. More than 75 percent of child sex trafficking victims were bought from Backpage.com, according to organizations that fight sex trafficking.

Wagner said in a statement that Section 230 was not meant to "give a free pass to the retailers of America's children." She said the amendment will provide "U.S. law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and victims the tools they need to help dismantle the human trafficking trade in the United States."

"I am honored to introduce this legislation on behalf of the countless children, women and men who have been sold into modern slavery and robbed of their dignity," Wagner said. "Sex trafficking has no place in a just society, and bad actors who run these websites are criminals who belong in prison."

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