A Key New Law to Combat Online Sex Trafficking
The FOSTA-SESTA package is already disrupting the online trafficking industry for the better.
The U.S. House and Senate last month passed an important bill, known as SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which targets online human trafficking. Now awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature, the bill “amends the federal criminal code to add a new section that imposes penalties — a fine, a prison term of up to 10 years, or both — on a person who, using a facility or means of interstate commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempt or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” The law empowers attorneys general to prosecute websites promoting sex trafficking.
In combination with an earlier measure, known as FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), which passed the Senate in late February, the FOSTA-SESTA package is already disrupting the online trafficking industry for the better.
As a result of the impending law, several online trafficking websites have already shut down. Craigslist removed its “Personals” section that was used for trafficking. The Erotic Review removed its prostitution ads. Reddit removed its “Hookers” forum webpage and instituted policies banning the sale of sexual acts and drugs. Cityvibe has shut down. Microsoft plans to issue new Terms of Service, taking effect May 1, urging users not use their platforms (including Skype and Xbox) to share pornography or criminal acts.
According to the International Labor Organization, the sex-trafficking industry claims 4.5 million victims worldwide. In the U.S., the $32 billion per year industry continues to increase in all 50 states. Currently, human trafficking has exceeded illegal sale of arms and, according to estimates, could surpass illegal drug sales in the next few years.
While an established number for victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. is difficult to measure, some assert that the number of trafficked children may be as high as 200,000 per year. Some 70% of survivors claim that they were advertised online at some point during their trafficking experience. Pimps and traffickers advertise in online classified ads with pictures and descriptions of victims, which are often children ages 12-17, a heartbreaking statistic.
Congresswoman Ann Wagner (R-MO), who sponsored the bill, stated, “This FOSTA-SESTA package will finally give prosecutors the tools they need to protect their communities and give victims a pathway to justice.”
The Netflix movie “I am Jane Doe” focused on the Backpage website, which receives 99% of its income from sex ads and facilitates thousands of daily ads for male and female prostitutes, as well as children being trafficked by adults. The movie made clear that section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) from 1996 gave exploitative websites like Backpage and others immunity from prosecution. The FOSTA-SESTA legislation amends the CDA and allows attorneys general to prosecute website administrators involved in sex trafficking.
Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA) also noted, “Last year, a massive international sex trafficking ring that was using the Internet to sell sexual services was uncovered in the heart of my district, Irvine, California. Thousands of those ads were tracked through Backpage.com, including ads selling minors for commercial sex. Websites such as Backpage have become storefronts for this modern-day slave trade. … The FOSTA-SESTA legislation will significantly help prosecutors crack down on websites that promote sex trafficking, while providing much needed recourse for the thousands of men, women, and children who are victims of this evil industry.”
The response to FOSTA-SESTA by online sex traffickers illustrates that good laws have the power to stop exploitation, bring victims to justice and renew society. Those in leadership positions have the power to wield their influence for good. If we and they commit to making the world safer and better, we could truly make a lasting difference for the decency and dignity of all human beings. These two bills stand as huge step in the right direction. As we await the president’s signature, we hope for a new day of justice for victims of human trafficking.
Update 4/12: President Trump has now signed the bill into law.