Trafficking Websites Will Be Liable

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March 28, 2018, Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act. The bill had bipartisan support and passed with a consensus of 97-2. SESTA amends Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a federal provision which has protected online publishers from being held liable for third-parties using their sites to post illegal content.

About a month ago, the House of Representatives passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA at a vote of 388-25, making posting or hosting online prostitution ads a federal crime.

For over a year, Florida Abolitionist has supported this and other legislation targeting websites who profit from sex trafficking. Many, if not most, of the survivors we assist have been trafficked through online ads.

As a result of this new law, survivors would be able to sue these websites.

The only thing keeping this from happening is a signature from the President. We expect him to sign the bill into law because he has been an outspoken supporter of anti-trafficking efforts.

As a result of the Senate’s decision, many websites have already taken steps to ensure they are not found liable. Late Wednesday night, Reddit administrators banned the subreddits “Escorts, Male Escorts, Hooker, and SugarDaddy.”

Google has also made it clear that it will not allow any pornography to be shared through its cloud services. Also, the popular classifieds website, Craigslist, removed its personals section.

Despite the changes, the law could have great consequences to online businesses. Since the law applies retroactively, it applies to trafficking that took place before the law passed. We expect many survivors to finally experience a little bit of justice from organizations that knowingly helped facilitate their exploitation.

Backpage.com may be the most notorious offender. In an 18-month investigation conducted by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, part of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, subcommittee Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri)  reported finding that Backpage.com was knowingly selling people online.

“They didn’t remove the post because they didn’t want to lose the revenue,” Portman said. “And you can imagine, this is a very lucrative business.” Under the current federal law, websites cannot be held responsible for content published by third parties on their sites. SESTA will change that and Backpage.com and other sites like it will no longer be able to hide behind a technicality.
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