A bill to crackdown on sex trade websites is now federal law — but not all anti-trafficking experts back the measure.
On Tuesday, April 11, President Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, a bill to block the proliferation of modern sex slavery. The law criminalizes “promotion or facilitation of prostitution,” and “reckless disregard of sex trafficking.” Penalties include fines and prison terms of anywhere between 10 and 25 years.
The intent of the bill is commendable, said N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg. Brawley has been an outspoken advocate in the fight against human trafficking in North Carolina, last year introducing legislation that would fund victim care centers and provide human trafficking awareness courses to public school students and law enforcers.
“Slowing the ability of traffickers to use the web to sell victims of human trafficking is a benefit. I look forward to a law that makes it easier to prosecute those who post the ads to sell the victims of human trafficking,” Brawley told Carolina Journal.
While many back the push against online trafficking, some experts believe the new law is the wrong answer to an admittedly serious problem.
FOSTA targets commercial sex advertisers such as Backpage.com, an online marketplace seized Friday, April 6, by the U.S. government. On Monday, April 9, seven Backpage administrators were arrested after a 93-count indictment of conspiracy, facilitating prostitution, and money laundering.
Backpage knowingly allowed the victims, some of whom were 14, to be trafficked, the indictment says.
“Virtually every dollar flowing into Backpage’s coffers represents the proceeds of illegal activity,” it reads.
In 2017, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that “Backpage is involved in 73 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives from the general public.”
The committee’s report, which took nearly two years to compile, says Backpage didn’t deny its site is used for criminal activity, “including the sale of children for sex.”
The company has avoided indictments by claiming immunity under the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The law protects websites hosting third-party content independent of the site’s operators. But Backpage staffers have on occasion removed references of underage girls from published ads, the Senate subcommittee discovered.
Though services like Backpage often facilitate crime, FOSTA could unhinge free speech rights, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to Congress.
“The risks to the Internet as the world’s most significant marketplace of ideas outweigh the uncertain benefit of the bill to the fight against sex trafficking,” the letter said, suggesting the law would bring unintended consequences.
Any liability for lawbreaking should be on content creators and advertisers, not on the site itself, wrote Faiz Shakir, national political director for the ACLU.
The bill could also hurt the people it is designed to protect, wrote Ian Thompson, the ACLU’s legislative representative. The law casts a “dangerously broad definition of the ‘promotion of prostitution.’” Arbitrary interpretation of the law could harm voluntary sex workers by forcing their return to street work, where risk of violence is much higher.
Most “sex work” is illegal in every state but Nevada. Even so, laws aren’t enforced consistently.
Sex trafficking is abhorrent, and Congress should address the issue. But it must do so in ways that protect the rights and safety of sex workers, said Thompson.
“Congress should — as our partners urged in their letter — sit down with key stakeholders, including sex workers and survivors of trafficking, to develop legislation that would establish standards, while avoiding serious, unintended consequences for sex workers and victims of trafficking.”