When Kubiiki Pride’s 14-year-old daughter went missing, she searched for weeks only to find her daughter’s picture in the “adult” section of an online marketplace for sex. She called the company to remove the ad, but they told her their policy was that only the person who posted it can have it taken down.
This may sound too horrifying to believe, but it’s real. Kubiiki found her daughter on Backpage.com—the leading website for online sex trafficking—and other mothers across the country are losing their daughters while Backpage makes millions.
Experts will tell you that sex trafficking has increased substantially in recent years because of the internet.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported an 846 percent increase in reports of child sex trafficking to its “CyberTipline” from 2010 to 2015. They found this increase to be “directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.” As sex trafficking victims have told me, it has moved from the street corner to the smartphone.
Backpage is clearly the leader in online sex trafficking. In fact, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 73 percent of all child trafficking reports it receives from the general public involve Backpage. Unbelievably, federal law has protected its unscrupulous business practices.
Backpage has escaped legal liability because courts have ruled it is protected by a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act. Courts have said that the law can protect companies like Backpage from liability for crimes committed through their website because they are publishing ads from third parties.
This year, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, conducted an 18-month investigation into Backpage. Our report found that Backpage actively and knowingly facilitated online sex trafficking, coached its users on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions, and knowingly edited ads to conceal evidence of crimes.
These actions make the company more than a simple publisher of third-party content—Backpage was an active participant in these horrible crimes.
The protections in the Communications Decency Act are important to shield good, honest websites from frivolous lawsuits, but they were never intended to apply—and they should not apply—to companies that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, as Backpage does.
Courts have called on Congress to fix this injustice.
In 2016, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Backpage because of immunity granted by the Communications Decency Act. The court opinion recognized the immorality of Backpage and its owners, but argued, “The remedy is through legislation, not through litigation.”
This August, a Sacramento judge dismissed pimping charges against Backpage because of the same immunity. The court opinion stated, “If and until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.”
It’s time for this 21-year-old law to be updated for the 21st century.
Fifty attorneys general from across the country also recently signed a letter calling on Congress to amend the law to allow courts to hold Backpage accountable.
That is what the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will do. I introduced this bill recently with 27 of my colleagues, including Senators Cruz, Lee, and Lankford, among others, to stop providing immunity for websites like Backpage that actively participate in sex trafficking.
The bill will update the Communications Decency Act with three narrowly crafted changes.
First, it will allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitate crimes against them.
Second, it will allow law enforcement to prosecute websites that knowingly assist, support, or facilitate a violation of already existing federal sex trafficking laws.
Finally, it will enable state law enforcement—not just the Department of Justice—to take legal action against businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
This bill does not affect liability protections for websites that obey the law. In fact, it preserves the Communications Decency Act’s “Good Samaritan” provision, which protects good actors who pro-actively block and screen for offensive material. It only removes protections for rogue online actors that knowingly facilitate and participate in sex trafficking.
Backpage has worked to actively profit from—rather than help stop—sex trafficking and should no longer enjoy federal protection for its crimes.
This is a common-sense solution that will have a real impact on the lives of victims around the country who have been denied their most basic human rights at the hands of sex traffickers. They deserve their day in court.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will finally force corporate sex traffickers like Backpage to answer for their crimes. After years of courts’ hands being tied by legislative immunity, this bipartisan bill is the first step on the path to stopping online sex trafficking and helping victims get justice.