It’s been a wide-open secret for years: pimps and traffickers using websites like BackPage to advertise women and children for sale. Law enforcement has turned to these sites to find criminals and victims but the prosecution of the internet companies has been largely out of the question.
The problem? A provision in the Communications Decency Act (CDA) that was intended to protect companies who acted in good faith to protect children from exploitation.
Donna Rice Hughes, an internet safety advocate and president of the non-profit Enough is Enough, even pushed for the legislation which passed in 1996, “the infancy of the internet” as she now recalls.
But since then, she and more than 100 anti-trafficking lobbyists say, tech companies have begun to use the law as a type of blanket immunity for anything that happened on their website.
“That was never the intent of Congress,” Hughes told CBN News.
Late Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly voted 388 to 25 to pass a bill that will begin to level the playing field by taking away that immunity and giving victims and prosecutors more power to sue.
Anti-trafficking advocates say it’s hard to overstate the significance of the bill’s passage in the House and they expect the Senate to pass it, with 63 co-sponsors already on board.
“This is a pretty big moment,” said Lisa Thompson, vice president of research and education for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, “the CDA has been one of the biggest obstacles.”
Christine Raino, senior director of public policy at Shared Hope International, has watched for years as victims tried to bring claims in court. If the bill passes in the Senate, she and other anti-trafficking advocates expect that traffickers and internet companies will be forced to change their ways.
“Websites are making outrageous profits,” Raino told CBN News, “they’re making a tremendous amount of money on selling trafficking victims. Because of the lack of civil liability, state criminal liability they face very low risk.”
By flipping the equation, Raino said, and making it difficult to post and facilitate ads for sex, lawmakers have the ability to curtail the trafficking industry as it currently stands. “The number of websites that use this model is only going to proliferate if we continue this equation,” she said.
Silicon Valley has flooded the Hill in recent months with an army of lobbyists to oppose the bill. As the New York Times reports, their main argument has been that the current law promotes free speech and allows the internet to thrive.
But Thompson maintains that the new bill is so narrowly focused that it will only impose on bad actors. “In terms of the average company, they can continue what they’re doing,” she said, “what this is really intended to go after is the companies that have business models built on sexual exploitation.”
Thompson says the bill has the potential to be a game-changer in an industry known for its ruthless abuse of women and children both nationally and across the globe. “Hopefully it will send a signal to people that sex exploitation isn’t the business to get in now,” she said.