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Congresswoman: Tech Companies ‘Seem Worried’ About Sex Trafficking Crackdown

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WASHINGTON – Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) called on Congress to crack down on tech companies behind websites that are facilitating online sex trafficking.

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 by adding language “to ensure vigorous 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, including through the availability of a civil remedy for victims of sex trafficking.”

“Backpage.com and tech lobbyists have pushed for a legal interpretation that immunizes websites like Backpage from the sex trafficking ads they facilitate. Meanwhile, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has witnessed a shocking 846 percent increase in suspected child sex trafficking reports in recent years. These victims include many women and girls that I have personally met,” Wagner said during “The Battle for Humanity: How Conservatives Can Fight Human Trafficking” on Tuesday at the Family Research Council.

Wagner argued that Section 230 of the existing law “shields” websites like backpage.com from liability for participating in sex trafficking.

“Congress holds a simple solution in its hands. Congress can amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to clarify that sex trafficking is not protected in Section 230’s immunity provisions. State attorneys general should be able to enforce their sex trafficking laws. Victims should be allowed to bring cases against websites that participate in trafficking,” she said. “And the federal government should be able to pursue criminal charges against websites that recklessly facilitate the crime.”

Wagner said passing her bill would give victims the ability to fight websites by creating “liability” for online sex trafficking.

“It is the single most effective action that Congress can take to end sex trafficking in this country but there is pushback from the tech community, which doesn’t want to see any changes to Section 230 whatsoever despite the court saying to Congress ‘legislate, legislate,’” she said, referring to the case Jane Doe No. 1 v. Backpage.com, LLC.

In 2014, victims of sex trafficking filed a lawsuit against backpage.com claiming that its advertisements facilitated illegal activity. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in favor of backpage.com citing the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” nor “held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” The Supreme Court decided not to hear the backpage.com case.

“My bill is a narrow surgical fix to the tension between Section 230 and sex trafficking law, but big tech and others and clinging to a slippery-slope fallacy,” Wagner added.

According to Wagner, Google makes up to $1 billion per year in “illegal” ad revenue.

“So you understand the fight. In fact, in 2011, Google settled with the Department of Justice’s investigation into Google’s facilitation of illegal drug sales for $500 million,” she said. “Tech companies seem worried that if Congress amends Section 230 now to create liability for sex trafficking crimes, Congress may amend it again in the future to allow state AGs to bring cases for other unlawful activities that websites are involved in. The simple fact is, unlawful is unlawful. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable in our society are trafficked online, they are raped repeatedly and left without access to justice.”

Wagner said she has visited safehouses in her district and met survivors of human trafficking who were sold on backpage.com.

“It is literally heartbreaking that while these survivors piece their lives back together, the websites that financially benefit from facilitating their slavery are let off scot-free. I found it hard to imagine that if a business hosted a slave auction that the auctioneer could not be held criminally liable,” she said. “Again, if you can’t commit it offline you shouldn’t be allowed to commit the crime online, but that is exactly what is happening with backpage.com.”