The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act has unanimously cleared a Senate committee with bipartisan support.
The full Senate should quickly move to pass the bill, which would allow victims to get justice and would give law enforcement a valuable tool in reining in the trafficking of children and young women on the Internet.
SESTA has been championed by Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) since a two-year Senate investigation revealed that classified advertising website Backpage.com has been facilitating sex trafficking for years.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported that an explosion in Internet ads led to an 846 percent increase in suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015. Backpage, according to an industry report, is the recipient of $8 of every $10 spent on online commercial sex advertising.
The investigation, by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, uncovered evidence that Backpage managers were sanitizing ads to remove certain words that would attract the attention of law enforcement, while knowing that the ads involved underage children.
Victims and their families have repeatedly sought justice through the court system, only to be defeated by the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity for third-party websites that host criminal content.
The initial goal of the CDA — to regulate pornographic content on the Internet — was good when it was signed into law in 1996. But Section 230 unwittingly shielded sites that were hosting ads of those engaging in illegal behavior.
SESTA would close the egregious loophole and strip the immunity for sites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. It would allow attorneys general to sue violators in federal court on behalf of victims. It would also allow prosecutors to pursue criminal charges.
The bill was heatedly opposed by Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, who feared that revising the Communications Decency Act would open the companies up to future liability for unknowingly hosting illegal content. Senator Portman has reassured them that the narrow focus of the bill is to go after facilitators of sex trafficking who are knowingly breaking the law.
SESTA is the centerpiece of Senator Portman’s valiant effort to shut down a heinous industry and allow victims to seek justice. The bill has 44 co-sponsors and broad bipartisan support. The Senate needs to get this done.
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