Earlier this year, Citizen brought you a pair of stories about the sex trafficking of minors (“Shut Down” and “Turning the Page,” March). Those stories detailed how the Web site Backpage.com has made it easier for traffickers to evade law enforcement, and the growing efforts to amend the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA 230), which courts so far have interpreted to mean Backpage’s executives can’t be held accountable for its alleged role in the crime—which was occurring thousands of times a day in cities nationwide as of this January. (You can access our coverage at citizenmagazine.com.)
There’s been a flurry of activity concerning that issue over the last few months.
This spring, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)—the co-leaders of the Senate Panel for Special Investigations (PSI)—won a court victory. On Jan. 10, the PSI released a lengthy report detailing the myriad ways Backpage’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, and its other two executives had not only knowingly facilitated the sex trafficking of minors, but gone to great lengths to conceal their activities. Backpage then sought to sue the government for “censorship”—but in mid-May, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled Backpage’s suit was moot in light of the report, and the PSI’s 22-month investigation was conducted for
“legitimate legislative purposes.”
In July, Portman, McCaskill and Sen. Tom Carper (D-R.I.) took things even further—recommending that the U.S. Department of Justice conduct a criminal investigation of Backpage’s executives.
“These types of crimes, sexual abuse and trafficking, are horrific, but it’s happening,” Portman said. “As many of the survivors have told me, ‘Rob, this has moved from the street corner to the smartphone’—and the smartphone is where Backpage dominates. Based on our best estimate, (by late 2010) Backpage was editing more than half a million ads a year.”
Despite the many lawsuits parents of trafficked girls have brought against Backpage over the last several years, courts have consistently ruled that Internet service providers aren’t liable for the speech published by others through their portals. That’s the shield Backpage has been using all along—and with great success. Only one lawsuit, being waged at the state level in Washington, was still viable as this issue of Citizen went to press.
But with the evidence that Backpage was actively involved in the trafficking by editing ads, that could be changing soon.
A new bill called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (S. 1693)—which Portman introduced in the U.S. Senate on Aug. 1, along with a bipartisan coalition of 24 of his colleagues—would close the loophole in CDA 230 by eliminating federal protections for ISPs that break the law, allowing state agencies and the federal government to prosecute them. A similar bill, H.R. 1865, was also introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) this spring.
The legislative battle was just gearing up at press time: The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—a pair of nonprofit organizations which have long led Backpage’s defense—were claiming the legislation will eliminate free online speech if passed. However, these bills have the full support of Focus on the Family—and I hope they have yours as well. If so, contact your legislators to let them know!
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.