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Senate Considers Controversial Online Sex Trafficking Bill

By William Vogeler, Esq. on December 13, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Sixteen-year-old Desiree Robinson was raped and stabbed to death after meeting a man through Backpage, a website notoriously known for sex-trafficking.

Yvonne Ambrose, her mother, told Senators the tragic tale at a recent committee meeting. The Senate Commerce Committee members listened as they consider the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).

"If there were stricter rules in place for posting on these websites then my child would still be with me today," Ambrose told a silent audience.

Communications Decency Act

SESTA would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects web publishers against liability for content posted by third parties on their websites. Under the proposed legislation, that immunity would be lifted from sites that promote sex trafficking.

"They have to be proven to have knowingly facilitated, supported or assisted in online sex trafficking to be liable in the first place," Sen. Rob Portman told the committee. "Because the standard is so high, our bill protects good tech actors and targets rogue online actors like Backpage."

The bill is controversial because internet publishers, including Backpage, don't want to lose DCA immunity from third-party content. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments to strip the protection from Backpage.

Ambrose has sued the company for wrongful death, but many other civil and criminal complaints against the company have failed. If SESTA becomes law, it would be a major shift in the landscape against online crime.

Sex Trafficking

According to reports, sex trafficking is a global epidemic that has ensnared five million people in sexual exploitation. Nicole Fisher, writing for Forbes, says it's a crime that is occurring in plain sight.

"Whether it's labor trafficking or sex trafficking, the number of victims is staggering, yet many of them remain hidden in plain sight," said former New York prosecutor Barry Koch. "After drug dealing, trafficking of humans is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world, and is the fastest growing."

In the United States, California had the highest number of reported human trafficking cases with 1,323 last year. Operation Reclaim and Rebuild is an ongoing sting operation there, which includes undercover officers working online to target classified sex ads and hidden sites on the dark web.

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