At approximately 11 a.m. on April 11, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill giving sex trafficking victims the ability to pursue damages from Web site operators who knowingly facilitate and profit from their exploitation.
The bill—formally known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) when it passed the U.S. Senate on an unheard-of 97-2 vote in March—closes a gigantic loophole in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which courts until that point had consistently interpreted as giving more protections to internet portal operators in the name of free speech than to women and girls whose lives have been devastated by traffickers.
In a widely circulated photo of the signing ceremony in the Oval Office, a young woman can be seen standing just past Trump’s left shoulder. She’s one of many advocates who attended the event—but she’s of special interest to Citizen readers, because she graced the cover of our March 2017 issue.
She’s a survivor whose real name we won’t reveal. She grew up in the Seattle/Tacoma area of Washington, but now lives with her family in a more arid place. When she was 15, she decided to run away from home—and within days found herself being trafficked, sold for sex with as many as 15 different men a day, usually through ads posted on the classified site Backpage.com. It was a nightmare that would unfold for her and her family over the next several years.
Her story was chronicled, along with those of other survivors, in our story and the documentary I Am Jane Doe—the poignant 2017 film by former Olympian and attorney Mary Mazzio that detailed exactly how Backpage’s executives knowingly facilitated the sex trafficking of minors by actively editing ads indicating they were under the age of consent—and also coaching their pimps how to do it. In my opinion, that film was a major factor in educating the masses about the problem in the courts and garnering support for FOSTA. She also spoke with us for our story last year, and attended the signing ceremony at the White House this spring.
A few days before the bill was signed, headlines from coast to coast blared the news that federal authorities had seized the servers of Backpage.com and its affiliated websites worldwide (to which they had been offloading sex-trafficking ads since the night before they were summoned to testify in front of a Senate investigative panel in January 2017). Seven executives, including co-founders Michael Larkin and Jim Lacey of Arizona, were charged with money laundering and running an online brothel that included girls as young as 14 in a 93-count indictment that was unsealed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix on April 9. CEO Carl Ferrer—who was referenced only by his initials as “someone working at Backpage” in the Arizona indictment—cooperated with law enforcement in exchange for a lighter sentence. He pled guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution in Arizona, California and Texas, and agreed to testify against the other executives. He will serve up to five years in prison.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted; you consider their grief and take it in hand. … Break the arm of the wicked man; call the evildoer to account for his wickedness that would not
otherwise be found out. —Psalm 10:14-15, NIV
Originally published in the June/July 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.