Is the online sex trafficking era about to meet the 'delete' key?

Across the web, online administrators are hitting “delete” on sex ads.

Several websites built solely around prostitution and sex trafficking, such as Cityvibe, have begun going dark, and mainstream websites like Craigslist and Reddit are removing their “Hookers” and “Personals” sections which acted as thin veneers for sex trafficking and prostitution advertisements.

Why?

This week, Congress passed a bill soon headed to the president’s desk to be signed into law that will change the landscape of the internet forever. H.R. 1865, known as FOSTA-SESTA, amends the 1996 Communications Decency Act Section 230—which courts previously interpreted as granting broad immunity to websites that facilitate third party sex trafficking and prostitution ads.

This legislation was sparked by the powerful momentum of the documentary I Am Jane Doe, which spotlights the stories of sex trafficking survivors fighting for justice against these multi-million dollar websites, and it was championed by survivors, Rep. Ann Wagner, Sen. Rob Portman, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Shared Hope International, World Without Exploitation, 50 United States Attorneys General, and many more.

For years this law thwarted sex trafficking survivors’ attempts to sue websites like Backpage.com -- a website which garnered 99 percent of its income from ads for sex, and which refused to take down ads of known child sex trafficking victims according to a U.S. Senate investigation. Online sexual slavery auctions were in effect a protected class of crime, a tragedy compounded by the fact that 73 percent of child sex trafficking victims referred to the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children were sold online.

That is until this week.

After removing its Personals section offline, Craigslist, for many years a go-to site for sex trafficking, stated: “Any tool or service can be misused. We can't take such risk without jeopardizing all our other services, so we are regretfully taking craigslist personals offline. Hopefully we can bring them back some day.”

Many have made hyperbolic claims that amending the law to hold websites accountable for knowingly hosting sex trafficking and prostitution ads would “break the internet.”

These developments clearly refute that argument. The sun rose today and Twitter is still functioning, knitting blogs remained intact, and Wikipedia is uninterrupted. The only difference is scores of websites are voluntarily removing sections that facilitated a high volume of sex ads.

These websites already knew the problem existed, but just lacked the incentive to effectively safeguard their communities. The writing was on the wall that their criminal liability, and perhaps even conspiracy with sex traffickers in some cases, would soon be addressed.

So, is sex trafficking on the internet over?

Certainly not, there will be websites that attempt to guise sex ads as “dating” ads. Most likely, many ads will migrate to social media sites where they will attempt to blend in with other users. Some ads may transfer to the dark web.

But at the end of the day, ads for sex trafficking and prostitution were already occurring in all of these places simultaneously ‘before the new legislation. What H.R. 1865 did at a minimum is it effectively shut down the lowest hanging fruit -- the forums and websites where any young pimp could become a wealthy trafficker just by posting a few ads and skyrocketing the number of sex buyer clients in his rolodex.

Raising the barrier to entry for the sex trafficking market is a step in the right direction. This measure, before it’s even been signed into law, has decreased the profits in the lower tiers of trafficking. Now law enforcement should focus its resources on the more sophisticated (and more damaging) organized crime components of trafficking.

One thing is for sure, this law made sex traffickers’ jobs harder, and for some, impossible. Which, in my book, is a good thing.

Haley Halverson is the Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation in Washington, D.C.