For years we have warned of human traffickers preying on our youth at a mall or places where teens may congregate. A predator would approach a young girl – average age 12 or 13 – pretending to be a boyfriend and groom them for sexual exploitation by showering them with gifts or drugs, and then exploit their naivety and traffic them for sex.
The same thing is going on today, only now the predator is using the Internet to reach out and exploit our youth. Online predators now reach into our homes and target-unsuspecting children on computers and social media. Congress investigated this Internet sex trafficking and we came up with landmark, bipartisan legislation that will protect sex trafficking victims who have been targeted by online predators.
I cosponsored the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which has now passed the House and Senate. It will give prosecutors, state attorneys general, and sex trafficking victims a clearer path to take legal action against websites hosting advertisements for prostitutes, which, in reality, often turn out to be young girls and boys who are being illegally trafficked for sex.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, nearly three-quarters of all reports of online child sex trafficking can be traced back to the website called Backpage.com. In a recent CBS News article, a 14-year old girl who was trafficked on the site said, “They're letting all of this happen on their website. I mean, without Backpage, I would have never been in any of this in the first place.”
Her mother continued, “Backpage has a primary purpose and it's to sell sex. Backpage has not done anything to ensure the safety of the kids on there, period.”
Congress investigated the practices of Backpage and disclosed that its operators actually helped predators modify their ads to delete references to teenage prostitutes or young victims of human trafficking, and still allowed the ads to run. The Washington Post reported that Backpage used a company in the Philippines to solicit both prostitutes and johns from other websites and created new ads that facilitated trafficking.
It became apparent that current anti-trafficking laws could not be applied to websites like Backpage, which host thousands of exploitive ads daily — too many of which are children being trafficked by adults. Backpage, time and again, successfully cited the Communications Decency Act, which they argued protected them.
In a 2016 case against Backpage.com, the First Circuit Court of Appeals made clear: “The remedy is through legislation, not litigation.” All 50 state Attorneys General joined the call for reform of this legislation to address the use of these sites for trafficking and both the House and the Senate responded on a bipartisan basis.
This legislation included backing from many in the technology community such as Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg: “Those of us in the United States must recognize that these deplorable acts of buying and selling children for sex don't just happen in other countries. They happen here as well – right under our noses … we at Facebook support efforts to pass amended legislation in the House.” Now our prosecutors will be able to crackdown on online predators.
Every summer, as part of my Young Women’s Leadership Program, we provide a session on the problem of human trafficking. We have made it a priority to educate young women about this threat that is online, as well as in their communities. With the passage of this legislation, there will be more tools to stop these unspeakable crimes against our youth.