A British model’s harrowing ordeal – lured to a phony photo shoot, shot up with drugs and slated to be auctioned off as a sex slave – is exactly the kind of exploitation U.S. lawmakers are seeking to prevent with new legislation that could pit them against some of the Internet’s biggest companies.
Twenty-year-old Chloe Ayling answered an online solicitation for a shoot in Italy last month, only to be brutally attacked by two men from Black Death, a sinister sex slave group that buys and sells women on the Internet. Her captors reportedly injected her with a cocktail of horse tranquilizers and ketamine, stuffed her inside a black suitcase and took her to a remote home where they plotted to sell her on the dark web.
“This new evidence further demonstrates that Backpage has been deeply complicit in online sex trafficking.”
Although Ayling was released less than a week later, U.S. lawmakers behind the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act are keenly aware that most such cases end on far more tragic terms. Through the proposed legislation, they are attempting to strip legal protections from websites – like Backpage.com – that have long been criticized for facilitating sex slave rings.
Congress has investigated claims of underage trafficking by Backpage for years. The online classified ad service operates in 97 countries. It’s similar to Craigslist.org and allows users to buy and sell items as well as “adult services.”
Backpage has repeatedly denied accusations of online sex trafficking, despite mounting evidence against them. The site has not been implicated in the Ayling case.
Still, in January, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a report claiming that Backpage knowingly facilitated underage trafficking by actively editing ads in its “adult services” section.
A bombshell report released last month claims the controversial classifieds site hired a Philippines contractor to lure customers seeking sex – indicating the company solicited and created sex ads, despite repeated denials in court and to Congress that it played no role in ad content.
“This new evidence further demonstrates that Backpage has been deeply complicit in online sex trafficking,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told Fox News in a written statement. “It’s why we need bipartisan legislation to address this type of online exploitation and ensure we are doing everything possible to save vulnerable women and young girls.”
But getting the bill passed could be a lot tougher than lawmakers think, as Internet giants including Google have signaled they will vigorously oppose any effort by Congress to regulate web content.
Larry Magid, CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety group, says despite its good intentions, SESTA could have some “unintended consequences both for tech companies and the very people the bill hopes to protect.”
“Of course the bill is well-meaning and I applaud the senators for wanting to protect women, girls and, yes, boys and men from the ravages of sex trafficking,” he wrote. “But rather than go after the specific offenders, this bill would amend section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was put in place by Congress in 1996 to protect free expression on the Internet.”
The risk – that SESTA would unintentionally expose good actors, such as responsible social networks or dating sites to frivolous lawsuits – outweighs its benefits, Daniel Castro, vice president at Information Technology and Innovation Foundation says.
“A better approach would be for the U.S. Department of Justice to take action under current law against sites that facilitate sex trafficking,” he wrote.