Washington Wednesday: FOSTA-SESTA

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 12th day of December, 2018. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. It’s hard to keep up with how many times Congress has confronted the scourge of sex trafficking. Most recently, lawmakers passed a set of bills that would especially target the online side of the problem.

The law is known by the acronym FOSTA-SESTA: Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

EICHER: FOSTA-SESTA now holds accountable any website that facilitates sex trafficking. In the past, operators of these websites could claim they weren’t responsible for what others posted on their platforms.

But that’s changed. Here’s Congresswoman Ann Wagner of Missouri talking about how FOSTA-SESTA amended the Communications Decency Act:

WAGNER: It goes in very, very narrowly and makes clear … that … these websites that are … in a reckless way, posting information, especially about underage children, that they would not be able to use that immunity … when it comes to criminal law. So we’re going after these criminals … to make sure that we shut down these bad actors. As we’ve watched over time, sex trafficking move from the streets, frankly, to the internet.

But organizations that work with victims say FOSTA-SESTA may now be moving sex trafficking back to the streets.

REICHARD: Charissa Crotts is a reporter for our sister publication WORLD Magazine. She’s here now to tell us about it.

Charissa, what happened right after the law passed?

CHARISSA CROTTS, REPORTER: President Trump signed the law in April and the Associated Press reported a 75 percent decrease in online sex ads. Websites like Skype and Craigslist changed their terms to make it clear what was allowed and what was not. In July, Representative Ann Wagner, a sponsor of the bill, posted a video saying the law had shut down 90 percent of online sex trafficking ads and business.

REICHARD: Well, that sounds like very good news. I mean, it sounds like a major success.

CROTTS: It is, but credit also goes to federal prosecutors who investigated and shut down Backpage.com. That was a major host for sex ads, particularly for advertising sex with minors. In April, authorities arrested its top executives for money laundering and facilitating prostitution and then shut down the website. The FOSTA-SESTA law came right after that.

REICHARD: Well, of course now that some months have passed, what other effects from this law have we seen?

CROTTS: Well, it’s still early and knowing exactly how sex traffickers will respond is difficult.

But prostitutes and sex trafficking victims say it’s made their lives even harder. For example, they don’t make as much money and they have less ability to vet people who want to pay them for sex.

The consensus is that police are arresting more girls on the streets for prostitution, and at younger ages than before. Of course, that’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it is important to understand how victims are being affected by the law trying to help them—the practical side.

REICHARD: And have advertisements for sex remained down from prior numbers?

CROTTS: No. Actually, after the initial drop, these ads are almost back to the same numbers as before—but they’ve migrated to foreign websites that the United States can’t regulate. In the past, local law enforcement could use tips from Backpage.com to track down sex traffickers, but those are gone now, too.

REICHARD: So to fight sex trafficking going forward, what should the next move be?

CROTTS: I talked with Brooke Crowder about that. She’s a Christian who runs The Refuge Ranch in Austin, Texas, where girls coming out of sex trafficking can go for rehab. Crowder said the law was a positive step to raise awareness of the issues and send a message to traffickers. But she also said the government should focus its resources on helping the victims of sex trafficking and making sure they have what they need to recover. Mentor programs, early intervention for kids who have families in prison, for those children who are in it: providing the right resources for their restorative care.

REICHARD: Charissa Crotts wrote about this for the weekly Digital Roundup called Compassion. Thanks, Charissa.

CROTTS: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Associated Press, Elaine Thompson) Volunteers in Seattle talk with a woman in August about services to help sex workers stay safe.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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