These days there seems to be a constant stream of high profile and incredibly note worthy events dominating the news cycle. However, for those of us in the abolition movement, there is something happening in Congress right now that may not yet rise to the same level as say, health care, or hurricane devastation, or mass murder. But nevertheless, it is a development of significant (and historic) magnitude and one which I’d like to explore in the next few blog posts.
In the Senate over the past several weeks there have been ongoing committee hearings on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act co-sponsored by Rob Portman (R-OH). [Just so you are aware, concurrently there is a similar bill working its way through the House of Representatives: Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.]
If passed into law, these bills would cut into the broad legal immunity that Internet platforms such as Backpage are afforded when it comes to content posted on their sites by third-party users. There is a lot to unpack here, so I am going to devote these next three blogs to doing just that: 1) What amending section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1934 is all about and how you can help (yes, 1934!), 2) How we got here: a little backstory, and 3) The heavy pushback (but growing acquiescence) from the large tech companies.
To get us started on this journey I HIGHLY encourage you to check out the Vimeo video linked below. It’s only a couple of minutes in length, but provides an emotionally compelling backdrop for understanding this issue:
An uncommon bit of bipartisan cooperation between Washington’s political parties emerged this summer, promising some long-delayed justice for human trafficking survivors. For quite some time advocates have been pushing Congress to fix a federal law: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Courts across the nation have widely read this law as affording immunity to individuals and companies that knowingly collaborate with sex traffickers to advertise and sell women and children online for sex. Judge Lawrence Brown of California Superior Court has observed, “Until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.” Wait… WHAT?!?
In August the outcry finally reached a fevered pitch when a California court (Judge Brown’s) dismissed pimping charges against the owners of Backpage.com for their role in marketing trafficking charges. Part 2 of this blog series will delve into Backpage’s role in this new sex trafficking ‘marketplace’. But the bottom line here is that victims of crimes facilitated by Backpage.com have not been able to seek justice because of the section 230 provision of the CDA giving websites a broad immunity under federal law.
To quote Senator Portman, ““We all believe in free speech and I think everyone on this panel believes that we ought to have Internet freedom. But the Communications Decency Act was never intended to protect those that engage in illegal conduct, and it was certainly never intended to protect online predators and sex traffickers. In fact, nothing in the original text of this law suggests that there should be an all-encompassing immunity for websites like Backpage that knowingly engage in sex trafficking.”
Senate Bill 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, will close the loophole in section 230 of the CDA, legally green-lighting prosecution of those providers of interactive computer services, (e.g., Backpage) who willingly and knowingly permit the sexual exploitation of people through a third-party on their websites (human traffickers) for profit accruing to them (Backpage annually receives an obscene amount of money from these ads).
If this has you fired-up to do something, here’s your opportunity! Those familiar with the work of the North Central Ohio Justice Coalition know how highly we regard the work of Shared Hope International. For those of you who may not yet be familiar with this organization, I highly encourage you to check out their site and explore the vast amount of resources they provide:
But using these resources, here’s how YOU can take action to support this critical legislation. I think you’ll agree… what they have put together for our use is rather unbelievable: exhaustive, far reaching, overwhelming come to mind!
Sign the petition
The Senate and House bills to amend the CDA currently sit with the House and Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees. Please add your name to the petition, to tell the members of the House and Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees that you support amending the CDA!
On this page you can sign the Shared Hope petition
Share the word on Twitter
Get the word out that you support the voices of survivors calling to amend the CDA. Use the retweet buttons on the page to spread the word. Call on legislators who have not yet supported this legislation to become a bill sponsor, and encourage legislators who are already courageously supporting this legislation.
For those with Twitter accounts: Share with your senators and representatives
Call your Representative and Senators
Calling your legislator is one of the most effective ways to move these bills forward. They even provide scripts to use for your Senators and Representatives! There are two versions, one to thank them if they are already a co-sponsor, and one to ask them to support the bill.
If you aren’t sure who your representatives and/or senators are, there’s a link provided to help you with this. As well, there’s a link to help you know whether your congressman/woman is a co-sponsor of the legislation.
SENATE: To call, you need to phone the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. A switchboard operator will connect you directly with the Senate office you request.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: If you know who your representative is but you are unable to contact them using their contact form (on the linked House of Representatives web page), the Clerk of the House maintains addresses and phone numbers of all House members and Committees, or you may call (202) 225-3121 for the U.S. House switchboard operator.
Every action you take adds to the swell of voices calling for Congress to listen to survivors and hold websites selling children responsible for their actions.
Thank you for your advocacy!
Next time: Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (2/3): The new sex trafficking marketplace