NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It, the fight against human trafficking.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: President Bill Clinton signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. That was the first law to make sex and labor trafficking a federal crime, and it took effect in the year 2000. Since then, Congress passed dozens more anti-human trafficking bills. The results weren’t particularly inspiring.
EICHER: But last month, an anti-trafficking bill targeting the tech industry made it to the president’s desk. President Trump is expected to sign it. Already, this legislation is doing what the others have failed to do: and that is make an immediate impact. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has the story.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Lisa Mitts is the director of Destiny House in Renton, Washington. Destiny House works to raise awareness in the Seattle area about human trafficking. It also connects victims of trafficking with other safe houses while it works to open its own.
Mitts is well aware of how big a role the internet plays today in human trafficking.
MITTS: Before the internet, trafficking was going on, you know, the Internet just made it easier.
Traffickers can advertise and market girls online and the Internet makes it easier for people seeking those services to find them.
MITTS: I do know survivors that went on and actually created their entire, uh, business of prostitution online. So there’s no question it’s used as a technique and a tool and all of that.
That’s why Lisa Mitts is excited about HR-1865, otherwise known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. The bill weakens Section 2-30 of the 1996 federal Communications Decency Act or the CDA. That section protects online firms like Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist from criminal liability over what users post or publish on their sites.
Linda Smith, president of Shared Hope International, says this section of the CDA has allowed websites to get away with knowingly allowing trafficking and prostitution.
SMITH: They’re facilitators and facilitators have complete immunity under the law. Even if they know they’re facilitating.
That fact became especially apparent in 2016 when a California investigation revealed that Backpage.com, a services advertising site, was allegedly allowing prostitution ads on its website. Those ads were responsible for 99 percent of the site’s revenue.
The investigation found many of those advertisements included victims of sex trafficking and children under the age of 18. California issued a warrant to arrest three of the site’s executives on charges of trafficking a minor and conspiracy to traffick a minor.
But later that year, a Sacramento judge exonerated Backpage of the charges… citing Section 2-30 of the Communications Decency Act that protects websites from liability… even human trafficking.
Linda Smith says the court case showed how Section 230 needed to change.
SMITH: The U.S. courts say that no state can prosecute civilly or criminally any facilitator of child sex trafficking because of this old federal law. It needed to be removed to be assured that both federal and state could prosecute the facilitator.
HR-1865 now makes online platforms criminally liable for the use of the internet to facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking. That means state law enforcement can now prosecute companies like Backpage.
Within hours of the Senate’s overwhelming vote to pass the bill, websites like Craigslist, Reddit and other smaller sites began shutting down personal ads historically used to traffic women and children because of legal fears.
SMITH: There were several erotic sites which would be called John Boards. They came down overnight, just went black, and these were sites that had been active and boldly in your face active and they took them down overnight. Now will some other spring up? Possibly, but do they know now there’s going to be criminal liability? Yes.
The bill has split the tech world. Critics argue Section 230 of the CDA is what has allowed social media platforms to flourish. Without universal liability protection, websites may be forced to over-censor users. Other companies like Oracle, IBM, and the Internet Association have applauded the new measures, while large companies like Google and Facebook have remained silent.
Lisa Mitts of Destiny Home in Washington says the new bill will not be easy to enforce. It’s difficult to prove that a website knowingly promoted or allowed trafficking on its website. But…
MITTS: for everybody that they do catch. I mean, obviously there’s going to be however many that they’re not gonna catch, but at least they can be accountable and it, we can make a statement to say, you know, that’s wrong. And that’s a huge step.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.