What to know about the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” of 2017

Guest Post: Sage Britton
Today’s guest post is written by Sage Britton, a Fall 2017 Research Intern with the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. Sage is currently a graduate student at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. “What to know about the ‘Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act’ of 2017” provides important context for one of this year’s most important pieces of federal legislation related to human trafficking. 

There has been much frustration recently surrounding the inability of the U.S. judicial system to charge those who use the internet as a platform to facilitate human trafficking. Following a number of cases where websites such as Backpage knowingly allowed ads for trafficking victims to be posted, judicial actors and legislators alike have called for a change to outdated laws which allow website operators to be free from prosecution.

What the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” would do

The “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” is a bill that has been introduced in the U.S. Senate. It aims to hold website users and providers accountable when they violate established sex trafficking laws¹. Increasingly, classified websites and other online advertising sites are being used as platforms where sexual services are advertised, including those of people who have been trafficked². Under current laws, website providers cannot be held accountable for the content that is posted by their users, even if they are aware that this content is promoting something illegal, such as sex trafficking. This bill (SB 1693) has been proposed following an outcry from judges, prosecutors, and other legal professionals who have expressed frustration that their hands are tied by outdated laws regarding the use of internet platforms to facilitate crimes3. If passed, this bill would be retroactively effective and could be used to prosecute those who knowingly allowed sex trafficking content to be posted.

How traffickers leverage technology

The rapid spread of technology and the relative anonymity it provides users has made it a substantial and growing factor in the crime of human trafficking. There has been a move away from recruiting and trafficking in a physical space to doing so in a digital space4. Early research on the scope of this problem shows that it is pervasive. In two different studies that analyzed online advertisements for content related to human trafficking, unique ads that could be related to trafficking numbered in the thousands5. In both cases, researchers only looked at ads that had been posted less than one month prior to their study6. Many of these ads were posted on multiple websites in order to reach a larger audience7. Additionally, a group based in Poland that works with women and children who are survivors of human trafficking released data that showed approximately 30 percent of their clients had been recruited via an internet platform8.

Supporters of the bill cite Backpage.com as a key platform know that knowingly facilitates crimes like trafficking

Many nations across the world have laws in place that hold provider’s accountable for illegal content that is posted on their websites. These laws help court systems to be able to prosecute people who are committing or facilitating crimes in a digital space. For example, because of laws similar to the one (SB 1693) being proposed, Italy and Poland were able to bring an employment agency website that was recruiting men for the purpose of labor trafficking to court9. The passage of this bill would help to ensure that policies about technology and its potential use as a tool for crime are up to date and effective.

Support for the bill

This bill has support from members of both parties in the house and the senate. It is also championed by 50 States Attorney Generals and has the backing of some notable tech companies10.

The “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017”, also known as S.1693, was introduced to the U.S. Senate in August 2017

Dissenting views

While some representatives on both sides of the aisle have endorsed the bill, other representatives from both parties have objected to it. Similarly, many large tech companies such as Google and Facebook have made their opposition to this bill clear11. Legislators and tech companies alike have voiced similar reasons for their dissent. They claim that the passage of this bill will be detrimental to free internet speech and that it will put in place unreasonable hurdles for new tech startup companies12. These startups may not have the resources to hire a team of lawyers versed in the laws surrounding human trafficking in order to protect them from liability for the content that is posted13. Those supporting the bill cite the fact that websites acting with “good intentions” and screening for content related to sex trafficking would be safe from prosecution if this amendment were passed14.

U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) is the author and key supporter of the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers” Bill.

Things to consider

It is important to think about the possible unforeseen consequences that could occur if this bill is passed. One possible consequence could be an infringement on free internet speech. Some providers may become overly cautious and pull any content that is reported as possibly relating to trafficking15. This would allow website director’s rather than judges to decide what is and is not “legal speech” online16. Further, this amendment specifically states that its purpose is to reduce sex trafficking and support sex trafficking victims. This wording leaves a large group of people who are trafficked for their labor on internet platforms vulnerable to continued exploitation and does not provide judges with a pathway to prosecute those who commit or facilitate this form of human trafficking.

Closing Thoughts

This amendment is a legislative attempt to close a gap the way that the United States police’s human trafficking. It has broad support and from members of both parties but also faces considerable opposition from legislators and tech companies alike. When deciding on supporting this bill, one must weigh the possible implications for free speech on the internet with the benefit of having laws that better reflect how our technology is being used.


Endnotes

  1. Portman, Rob. (2017). SB 1693. Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers. Accessed at https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1693/text
  2.  Ibanez, Michelle and Suthers, Daniel. (2014). Detection of Domestic Human Trafficking Indicators and Movement Trends Using Content Available on Open Internet Sources. Hawaii International Conference on System Science. Accessed at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=6758797
  3.  Portman, Rob. (2017). History will judge those who don’t stop sex trafficking. The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/19/stop-sex-trafficking-bill-rob-porter
  4.  Ibanez, Michelle and Suthers, Daniel. (2014). Detection of Domestic Human Trafficking Indicators and Movement Trends Using Content Available on Open Internet Sources. Hawaii International Conference on System Science. Accessed at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=6758797
  5.  Ibanez, Michelle and Suthers, Daniel. (2014). Detection of Domestic Human Trafficking Indicators and Movement Trends Using Content Available on Open Internet Sources. Hawaii International Conference on System Science. Accessed at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=6758797  and Dixon, Herbert. (2013). Human Trafficking and the Internet. The Judge’s Journal. 52(1). Accessed at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/judges_journal/2013_win_jj_tech.authcheckdam.pdf
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. Dixon, Herbert. (2013). Human Trafficking and the Internet. The Judge’s Journal. 52(1). Accessed at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/judges_journal/2013_win_jj_tech.authcheckdam.pdf
  9.  Ibid
  10. Jeong, Sarah. (2017). Sex Trafficking Bill is turning into a Proxy War over Google. The Verge. Accessed at https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/14/16308066/sex-trafficking-bill-sesta-google-cda-230 and Portman, Rob. (2017). History will judge those who don’t stop sex trafficking. The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/19/stop-sex-trafficking-bill-rob-porter
  11.  Quinn, Melissa. (2017). Tech community fighting online sex trafficking bill over fears it will stifle innovation. The Washington Examiner. Accessed at http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/tech-community-fighting-online-sex-trafficking-bill-over-fears-it-will-stifle-innovation/article/2634402
  12.  Ibid
  13. Ibid
  14. Portman, Rob. (2017). History will judge those who don’t stop sex trafficking. The Guardian. Accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/19/stop-sex-trafficking-bill-rob-porter
  15.  Keller, Daphne. (2017). Congress’s Sloppy New Internet Bill is a Step in the Wrong Direction. The Hill. Accessed at http://thehill.com/opinion/criminal-justice/351225-stop-enabling-sex-traffickers-act-is-a-step-in-the-right-direction

16.  Ibid

Sage Britton

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