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Online sex crimes loophole removal nears House vote

WASHINGTON (BP) — A legal loophole that has shielded sex advertising websites and their users from prosecution may be reversed after the U.S. House of Representatives heard arguments today (Feb. 27).

A bipartisan bill, hailed by such advocates as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), would amend Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934. Classified advertising website Backpage.com and its users have used the act to avoid federal and state prosecution over interactive computer services related to child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, according to the bill’s supporters.

H.R. 1865, termed the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA),” would allow monetary fines and up to 10 years’ imprisonment of “whoever uses or operates a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or attempts to do so with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.”

More than 170 lawmakers are cosponsoring the bill that is also supported by law enforcement groups and the technology community. House debate was continuing at the deadline of today’s edition of Baptist Press.

Bill author Ann Wagner, R-Mo., introduced the bill in April 2017 “sadly out of necessity,” she told fellow representatives today. In a Feb. 26 Townhall editorial, Wagner said the law has prevented sex trafficking victims from accessing justice and relief, and that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) has been ineffective in fighting online sex crimes.

“Since 2010, several brave sex trafficking victims have sued Backpage.com — exercising their rights to seek justice against the website that facilitated their slavery — and state attorneys general have prosecuted Backpage.com for its criminal conduct,” Wagner wrote. “Section 230 has been interpreted so broadly that courts have ruled in favor of Backpage.com despite the website’s clear criminal conduct.”

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also praised the bill.

“Government is right to pursue justice and defend the vulnerable,” Travis Wussow, ERLC general counsel and vice president for public policy, told Baptist Press. The legislation “is a needed step in the fight to end human trafficking.

“Southern Baptist churches believe human trafficking is particularly heinous because it is an assault on the image of God on every life,” Wussow said. “Currently, America’s modern-day slave markets utilize the internet to traffic the vulnerable. This must stop.”

NCOSE has urged passage of both the House bill and similar legislation in the Senate, Bill 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or SESTA, on the Senate’s legislative calendar since January 10.

“It’s time to restore the rights of victims of sex trafficking rather than protect the kingpins of sexual exploitation,” Lisa L. Thompson, NCOSE vice president of research and education, said in a Feb. 26 press release. “As it stands, victims have been barred access to the civil courts, while certain Internet companies have been granted what amounts to a right to engage in criminal conduct.”

NCOSE placed Backpage.com on its 2018 Dirty Dozen List of the leading facilitators of sexual exploitation, describing the site as “the hub” for prostitution advertising, with women and children comprising many of the sexually trafficked.

“There is now a special, elite class of sex traffickers — those who provide the organizational superstructure on which most of modern sex trafficking occurs — who can operate with impunity,” Thompson said. “In a tragic series of court cases favoring Backpage … the courts have interpreted the Communication Decency Act (CDA) to give websites posting third-party content immunity for criminal activity facilitated via their sites, and denied victims of sex trafficking the right to sue the companies that facilitated and profited from their exploitation.”