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ERLC, others endorse bills to combat sites aiding sex trade

WASHINGTON (BP) — The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has strongly endorsed congressional efforts to hold accountable Backpage.com and other online sites that profit from sex trafficking.

ERLC President Russell Moore and officials with other organizations wrote Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sept. 7 in support of their legislative proposals, which Moore and the others said would enable law enforcement “to effectively combat online sex trafficking hubs that provide a safe haven for modern day slave traders.” A Senate committee held a hearing on Portman’s bill today (Sept. 19).

Joining Moore on the letter endorsing Wagner’s bill were officials of the Family Research Council (FRC), National Center on Sexual Exploitation and Faith & Freedom Coalition, while the head of Concerned Women for America (CWA) added her endorsement to those of the other signers on the letter to Portman.

“The internet has become a haven for predators using it to traffic and sexually exploit innocent women and children,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “It is well past time to provide a legislative solution that allows victims of online sex trafficking to seek justice and restitution from the websites that facilitate their abuse. This legislation would close loopholes and ensure those complicit in the online sex trade would find no refuge in America’s justice system.”

Moore urged Congress “to take the necessary action to get this bill to the president’s desk, and I pray that churches around the country would be known as those that stand for human dignity and protect the vulnerable.”

The use of the internet has grown to dominate the trafficking of adults and children for sexual purposes. During the last five years, 81 percent of reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) regarding child sex trafficking relate to the online trade of a minor.

Backpage.com, a classified advertising website, is reportedly far and away the leading online facilitator of the sex trade. More than 73 percent of reports by the public to NCMEC in the last five years concern a Backpage.com ad.

Both legislative proposals — the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (H.R. 1865) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (S. 1693) — would amend the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 to clarify internet service providers that take part in the sex trade are not legally protected. Courts have interpreted the CDA’s Section 230 to safeguard such sites from liability.

In each letter, Moore and the other signers said Congress never meant for CDA’s Section 230 “to serve as a liability shield to companies so that they could profit from the sale of women and children for sexual exploitation.” They described each bill as “an important and critically needed reform that will protect women and children without undermining internet freedom or the [F]irst [A]mendment.”

Both bills include provisions that would enable states to use their laws to “investigate and prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking” and permit victims of sex trafficking and child sexual exploitation to gain civil judgments against online sites.

Moore and the others commended the efforts by Wagner and Portman to expose or investigate Backpage.

In January, 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, but ads for prostitution and child sex trafficking reportedly have moved to other places on the site, such as its dating section.

Signing both letters with Moore were David Christensen, FRC’s vice president for government affairs; Patrick Trueman, president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation; and Timothy Head, executive director of Faith & Freedom Coalition. CWA President Penny Nance joined in the letter to Portman.

In a Sept. 19 hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, NCMEC Senior Vice President Yiota Souras endorsed Portman’s bill. In prepared testimony, she said his legislation “strikes an important balance between providing sex trafficking victims the opportunity to hold everyone actively participating in their victimization accountable with the need to continue encouraging innovation of technology on the internet.”

Meanwhile, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra supported the proposal in his written testimony but said it needs to be strengthened by broadening it to include all criminal prosecutions, not just those for sex trafficking. Abigail Slater, general counsel of the Internet Association, told the committee in prepared testimony the bill needs to be more targeted to prevent the work of online companies from being impacted. The Internet Association represents the world’s leading internet companies on public policy issues.

Earlier this summer, the House approved more than a dozen anti-trafficking bills, including the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act, comprehensive legislation authorizing more than $500 million for four years to combat sex and labor trafficking.

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.