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Congress passes online, anti-trafficking bill

WASHINGTON (BP) — Congress has given overwhelming approval to legislation designed to thwart sex trafficking by holding accountable online sites that facilitate the crime.

The Senate adopted the bill in a 97-2 vote March 21, barely three weeks after the House of Representatives had passed it Feb. 27 in a 388-25 roll call. The bill will go to President Trump, who is expected to sign it.

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) would amend a 1996 anti-obscenity federal law to authorize the prosecution of websites that support the sale of people in the sex trade. The proposal — which includes provisions from the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) — also would clarify trafficking victims have the right to bring civil action against such online sites as the classified advertising company Backpage.com.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and other supporters of the bill applauded the legislative action.

ERLC President Russell Moore said he is “deeply thankful that Congress has passed this commonsense legislation addressing one of the most significant human rights issues in the world today.”

“Human slavery and trafficking are wicked to the core,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “I look forward to this bill being one important societal step among many in the work to end this scourge in our world.”

Donna Rice Hughes, president of the internet safety organization Enough Is Enough, described the Senate vote as “a critical step towards draining the cyberswamp of commercial sexploitation.” In a written statement, she described it as “nothing short of a David and Goliath victory against the multibillion dollar trafficking industry and the tech giants who lobbied against the bill’s passage.”

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., FOSTA’s sponsor, thanked the Senate for its vote, tweeting, “Today, Congress spoke up for countless survivors of sex trafficking and unequivocally stated that our sons and daughters are NOT for sale.”

Though the legislation has yet to be signed into law, the precautionary response by websites involved in sex trafficking and prostitution was almost immediate after the Senate vote.

The online platform Reddit — known as the “front page” of the internet — barred several sex-worker forums hours after the Senate passed the bill, according to the news site Reason.com. Other sites — Craigslist, Cityvibe and Erotic Review — shuttered their U.S. prostitution ads, according to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE).

These steps indicate “the major role Internet companies play in promoting prostitution and sex trafficking” and demonstrate the bill’s “power to hold them legally responsible for facilitating these criminal activities,” said Lisa Thompson, NCOSE’s vice president of policy and research.

“As ‘businesses’ that help arrange prostitution transactions and which derive earnings from them, there can be no doubt that their executives and owners are the functional equivalents of sex traffickers (a.k.a. pimps),” Thompson said in written remarks. “These businesses and their owners represent corporatized sex traffickers, who until [March 21] were a protected class of criminals.”

The use of the internet has grown to dominate the trafficking of adults and children for sexual purposes, and Backpage.com is reportedly far and away the leading online facilitator of the sex trade. More than 73 percent of reports by the public to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children concern a Backpage.com ad, the center said in January 2017.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act was designed to combat online obscenity and indecency, but courts actually interpreted a section of the law to protect from liability sites involved in sex trafficking. FOSTA — with SESTA — would enable states to use their laws to “investigate and prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking.” It also would make it clear victims of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation are able to gain civil judgments against online sites.

Travis Wussow, the ERLC’s general counsel and vice president for public policy, commended Wagner and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, SESTA’s sponsor, for their leadership of the bipartisan effort.

“Sex trafficking mars the God-given dignity of millions of people worldwide,” Wussow told BP in written remarks. “Victims of sex trafficking deserve justice and protection under the law. This bill is an important step forward in the fight to end sex trafficking.”

The only Senate members to vote against FOSTA were Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

On Twitter, Wyden said he takes “a backseat to NOBODY when it comes to policies that bring sex traffickers to justice and help the victims of their hideous crimes.” He said, however, the measure “will punch a hole in the legal framework of the open Internet” and “will prove to be ineffective, it will have harmful unintended consequences, and it could be ruled unconstitutional.”

In January 2017, a Senate investigative subcommittee chaired by Portman reported Backpage knows its site facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking. The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs also found Backpage had hidden evidence of criminal acts by editing the ads in its “adult” section and by coaching its customers to post acceptable ads for illegal activities.

In addition, the subcommittee reported Backpage’s growth in gross revenue from $5.3 million in 2008 to $135 million in 2014 “was attributable to ‘adult’ advertisements.”

Backpage shut down its “adult” section shortly after the Senate subcommittee released its report in 2017, but ads for prostitution and child sex trafficking reportedly were moved to other places on the site, such as its dating section.

Among FOSTA’s supporters were Facebook, IBM, Oracle, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Mastercard.

In the Southern Baptist Convention’s most recent resolution opposing human trafficking, messengers to the 2013 meeting approved a proposal that included a call for Southern Baptists to support government policies to fight trafficking.