Ohio senators hope proposed legislation will curb online sex trafficking

Senators said the bill would combat sex trafficking on sites like Backpage, while some Internet-based companies worry it's too broad

A push by lawmakers to end prostitution on Backpage.com has done little to stop the advertisements online.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WKBN) – Ohio’s senators are joining in the fight against online sex trafficking, but some internet-based companies worry that their proposed legislation to combat it is too broad.

Tuesday, Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown introduced the bipartisan legislation — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The senators said it allows sex trafficking victims and state law enforcement to go after websites that facilitate human trafficking.

“We need to bring all traffickers to justice – no matter how they carry out this heinous crime,” Sen. Brown said. “With evolving technology, we must ensure the law keeps pace with this modern-day slavery.”

The website that they’re specifically targeting is Backpage.com, which a Senate panel accused of knowingly advertising sex trafficking on its website. Their plan to is to reshape Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make sure websites are liable for criminal activity that is conducted online.

“For too long, courts around the country have ruled that Backpage can continue to facilitate illegal sex trafficking online with no repercussions,” Sen. Portman said. “The Communications Decency Act is a well-intentioned law, but it was never intended to help protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us.”

In 2014, three women brought cases against Backpage, saying that the website contributed to their trafficking and profited off of their suffering. But the federal court ruled against them, saying the Communications Decency Act protects Backpage from liability.

The Communications Decency Act currently gives internet service providers immunity to any action caused by information originating with a third-party user of the service.

Internet Association President and CEO Michael Beckerman issued a statement, applauding efforts to go after “rogue operators like Backpage.com” and hold facilitators of sex trafficking accountable. But, he said, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act could actually hurt the internet industry.

“While not the intention of the bill, it would create a new wave of frivolous and unpredictable actions against legitimate companies rather than addressing underlying criminal behavior,” he said. “Furthermore, it will impose new, substantial liability risks for companies that take proactive measures to prevent trafficking online, hampering the ability of websites to fight illegal activity. The bill also jeopardizes bedrock principles of a free and open internet, with serious economic and speech implications well beyond its intended scope.”

Portman said he has worked with the technology industry when crafting the legislation. He said internet-based companies shouldn’t worry if they aren’t “knowingly engaging” in a crime.

“We’re also keeping another provision in law called the Good Samaritan Provision, which says that if a company is trying to weed out some of the really bad traffic that they’re getting — which some of these players do — that they’re protected, and they should be protected, from liability,” he said. “This is targeting the Backpage.coms of the world.”

Portman spoke to WKBN earlier this year about the fight against online prostitution and sex trafficking, acknowledging the difficulty in regulating it.

Although Backpage shut down its adult personal ads, local police said they’ve just moved to the website’s dating section. Investigators in Mahoning County told WKBN that the ads have also popped up on a number of other websites, including dating websites.

Portman said if passed, the law would apply to other websites where these advertisements appear.

Backpage, which issued a statement after the Senate panel’s investigation, argued that any “act of censorship” will not reduce human trafficking.

“Instead, it undermines efforts by Backpage.com to cooperate with law enforcement and provide information to identify, arrest and prosecute those who engage in human trafficking,” the statement read.

Portman said legislation is just one way to combat a problem which continues growing in the midst of Ohio’s opioid epidemic.

“It’s connected to the heroin issue in Ohio, unfortunately. We’ve got a lot of people addicted to opioids… some of those are girls and women who end up getting into this sex trafficking dependency, and this is an attempt to pass a sensible law that allows these girls and women and their families to be able to get justice finally,” he said.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act does have the endorsement of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Sen. Sherrod Brown has also been working on the Abolish Human Trafficking Act, a bill that was voted favorably out of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in June.

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