Innocent Victims: The Fight Against Online Child Sex Trafficking

January 11, 2018

Tell Congress it's time to pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) now. 

Digital technology has made it easier than ever for sex offenders to contact potential child victims around the world, share images of their abuse and encourage each other to commit further crimes. 92 percent of all child sexual abuse URLs are hosted in five countries: the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, France and the Russian Federation. Shockingly, U.S. courts have ruled that it is legal for computer service providers to permit child sex trafficking on their websites. No scenario demonstrates this harrowing reality better than the ongoing battle against Backpage.com, a website involved in 73 percent of cases of suspected sex trafficking in the U.S.

U.S. courts have ruled that it is legal for interactive computer service providers to permit child sex trafficking on their websites

Operating in at least 97 countries worldwide, Backpage was once the world's second largest classified advertising website, but sex ads featuring underage boys and girls in its "adult ads" section placed it at the center of a Senate investigation in 2016. The resulting report, Backpage.com's Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking, found that Backpage was actively facilitating and profiting from online child sex trafficking. A separate report found that the site was also using a proxy company in the Philippines to seek out sex traffickers by "contacting people who posted sexually explicit ads on rival escort sites and offering them a free ad on Backpage." 

An 8-year-old girl and her little brother were rescued during a crime raid after their parents forced their two oldest sisters to perform in live streaming of child sexual abuse shows in the Philippines.

An 8-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother were rescued during a crime raid after their parents were caught forcing their two oldest sisters to perform in live streamed child sexual abuse shows in the Philippines. © UNICEF/UN014961/Estey

Despite the evidence and numerous attempts to sue Backpage — chronicled in the documentary film "I Am Jane Doe" — the site has not been held accountable. Courts have ruled that websites like Backpage are protected by a section of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Section 230 of the CDA protects "interactive computer service providers" (ICSPs), such as Backpage, Google, Facebook and Craigslist, from liability for activity conducted by third parties. This, for example, protects ICSPs from liability for a chair that was stolen and then posted for sale on their site. That part makes sense.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) is designed to stop companies from facilitating — and profiting from — child sex trafficking

The "Good Samaritan" provision further encourages ICSPs to take action against content that is "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable." However, courts have rules that this liability shield also protects ICSPs that knowingly and actively facilitate child sex trafficking. That is what the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA) seeks to amend. 

A victim of child sex abuse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. According to the Royal Malaysian Police, in 2015, children between the ages of 10 and 18 made up 80% of all victims raped by an Internet acquaintance.

A victim of child sex abuse in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2017. According to the Royal Malaysian Police, in 2015, children between the ages of 10 and 18 made up 80% of all victims raped by an Internet acquaintance. © UNICEF/UN0140080/Humphries

SESTA would amend Section 230 of the CDA so that any ICSP which "assists, supports or facilitates" child sex trafficking can be held accountable. It does so with carefully crafted language which asserts that the CDA should not "impair the enforcement of, or limit availability of victim restitution or civil remedies under, state or federal criminal or civil laws relating to sex trafficking of children or sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion." It would also create a uniform standard for criminal charges based on federal human trafficking laws.

Passing SESTA will send a strong message that online child sex trafficking is not only immoral, but illegal

The amendment initially faced some criticism from organizations that feared it may punish ICSPs for taking action against traffickers within the scope of the "Good Samaritan" provision. Lawmakers listened to those concerns, and clarified the language. Consequently, the Internet Association, a trade group that includes Google, Amazon, Lyft, Facebook, Yelp and others, issued a statement in support of SESTA in November 2017: "Internet Association is committed to combating sexual exploitation and sex trafficking online and supports SESTA." 

Passing SESTA would send a strong message to ICSPs that participating in online child sex trafficking is not only immoral, but illegal. A March 2016 ruling in Backpage's favor states that the problem must be remedied "through legislation, not through litigation." Congress has answered that call with SESTA: Now let's work together to pass it.

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Eitan Peled is a Global Citizen Fellow with the UNICEF USA End Trafficking Project. 

Top photo: Gina, 12, was sexually assaulted and exploited by a 59-year-old neighbor on the island of Nosy Be, Madagascar. Police believe he is part of a larger network of criminals involved in the production and distribution of child pornography. © UNICEF/UN015619/Prinsloo