On Christmas Eve 2016, while Yvonne Ambrose should have been enjoying the company of her family and celebrating the holiday, she was instead grappling with the news that her 16-year-old daughter Desiree was found murdered in a parking garage that morning.
As the heartbroken mother has described, Desiree was being sold for sex on Backpage.com — the leading website for online sex trafficking — when she was murdered. Yvonne is, sadly, one of many mothers whose daughters have been exploited on the internet.
For too long, websites like Backpage, that knowingly run ads selling underage girls, have escaped liability and justice. Courts have ruled that the website is protected by broad immunity from a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act. When the law was enacted, the goal was to protect website operators acting in good faith who lacked knowledge that third parties were posting harmful or illegal content on their sites. Now it protects knowing sex traffickers.
The fact that women and children are sold for sex in our country is a stain on our national character – and it is getting worse because of the internet. Every day that online sex traffickers continue to be protected by federal law is a failure of Congress.
As the Senate commerce committee holds a hearing on the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, we have an opportunity to fix this flaw in the justice system.
Courts have made it clear that their hands are tied until Congress changes the Communications Decency Act to hold online sex traffickers, like Backpage, accountable. Last year, the first circuit court of appeals recognized Backpage’s role in trafficking three 15-year-old girls, but ruled in favor of the website because of the legal precedent established by the Communications Decency Act’s broad immunity, stating, “The remedy is through legislation, not litigation.”
In August, a Sacramento judge threw out pimping charges against Backpage, making a blatant call on Congress to act, stating: “If and until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the Communications Decency Act even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.”
It is Congress’s responsibility to change this law. Women and children have had their most basic human rights stripped from them and have been let down in their search for justice by our judicial system and, frankly, by Congress.
The bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will make changes to the Communications Decency Act that give mothers like Yvonne the justice they deserve and hold accountable websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking.
The bill would do two things.
- First, it would allow sex trafficking victims to get justice against websites that knowingly facilitate crimes against them.
- Second, it would allow state and local law enforcement to prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
There are 50 attorneys general from across the US who recently wrote a letter to Congress asking for this commonsense change to the Communications Decency Act to bring Backpage and other websites to justice.
And despite what some opponents of this bill in the tech community have argued, it is narrowly crafted and only removes immunity protections from websites that knowingly facilitate, support or assist online sex trafficking. This high standard will protect against frivolous lawsuits for good online actors not actively engaging in these inhumane crimes.
Outside support for this legislation continues to grow. Last week, tech giant Oracle endorsed this legislation, as did 21st Century Fox. And just yesterday, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise came out in support of this bill as well. This support among some in the tech community is in addition to dozens of anti-human trafficking, faith-based, and law enforcement groups around the country.
Supporters of the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act have been outspoken in public, while many who oppose this bill prefer to do so in private behind the veil of outside lobbying organizations.
With an opportunity to provide justice for vulnerable sex trafficking victims and hold those who facilitate, and profit from, these crimes accountable, history will judge where we all stand on this issue.
I will be in front of the Senate commerce committee, along with Yvonne Ambrose, testifying on behalf of the countless women and children who have been subjected to these evil crimes and denied justice — standing resolute in support for the bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.