Blumenthal & Portman Lead Bipartisan Legislation to Hold Backpage Accountable, Ensure Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking

Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is a Narrowly-Crafted Solution Designed to Protect Women & Young Girls from Modern-Day Slavery

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Today U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rob Portman (R-OH), Co-Chairs of the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, led a bipartisan group of twenty Senators introducing legislation – the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act – to ensure justice for victims of sex trafficking and ensure that websites such as Backpage.com, which knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, can be held liable and brought to justice. 

“Our narrowly tailored legislation would give victims of sex trafficking their day in court. For too long, countless young people have been victims of prostitution, human trafficking, and horrendous violence through ads on websites like Backpage.com,” Blumenthal said. “This is not an abstract debate: these advertisements come with a real, unconscionable human cost.”

“Stopping trafficking is one of the great humanitarian and human rights causes of the 21st century. Our bipartisan investigation showed that Backpage knowingly facilitated sex trafficking on its website to increase its own profits, all at the expense of vulnerable women and young girls.  For too long, courts around the country have ruled that Backpage can continue to facilitate illegal sex trafficking online with no repercussions,” Portman said. “The Communications Decency Act is a well-intentioned law, but it was never intended to help protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us. This bipartisan, narrowly-crafted bill will help protect vulnerable women and young girls from these horrific crimes.”

The bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act would clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to ensure that websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking can be held liable so that victims can get justice. This narrowly-crafted legislation offers three reforms to help sex trafficking victims. The bipartisan bill would:

  • Allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitated the crimes against them;
  • Eliminate federal liability protections for websites that assist, support, or facilitate a violation of federal sex trafficking laws; and
  • Enable state law enforcement officials, not just the federal Department of Justice, to take action against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws.

A full summary of the bill can be found here, a summary on why the bill is necessary is here, a section by section here, and the text here

The legislation is the result of a two-year Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) inquiry, led by Portman and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), which culminated in a report entitled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking,” which found that Backpage.com knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls and then covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act has been endorsed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and other anti-trafficking advocates and law enforcement organizations:

John Clark, President and CEO, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: “On behalf of the National Center for Missing & Exploiting Children (NCMEC) and the families and children we serve, I am writing to express our support for your legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. This bill will help ensure justice for child sex trafficking victims and clarify remedies available to civil attorneys and state Attorneys General to assist victims in holding responsible everyone who participated in their trafficking… We have long supported the Senate’s work to investigate Backpage’s illegal activities. Now is the time to move forward on a legislative solution to resolve key issues raised by the investigation so that many of the child survivors, their families, and their attorneys who NCMEC has worked with for years will have access to justice.”

Brad Myles, CEO, Polaris: “On behalf of Polaris, a non-profit organization working to end human trafficking and restore freedom to victims and survivors, I am writing to express our support for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017….Human trafficking is a criminal industry that is estimated to generate $150 billion per year in global profits. Mounting evidence has made clear that traffickers are increasingly operating online and that certain online service platforms are taking advantage of legal loopholes to profit off of these heinous crimes by knowingly creating or hosting content and actively engaging in conduct that collaborates with sex traffickers to facilitate the sale of minors and adults victimized by sex trafficking. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 seeks to carefully close these loopholes, to support sex trafficking survivors, and to hold these bad actors accountable.”

Former Congresswoman Linda Smith, Founder and President of Shared Hope International: “Sex trafficking on the internet is a growing threat to vulnerable women and children in every state, city and house – in America and abroad. Shared Hope International has worked for many years to bring justice to the victims and their families and to stop this crime. The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 will bring resolution to the showdown between the Communications Decency Act’s protections for certain internet businesses and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s human rights protections. This bipartisan legislation will restore the promise of access to justice to these victims and hold offending websites culpable for their crimes.”

Carol Smolenski, Executive Director, ECPAT USA: “We are encouraged by the legislation introduced today by Senator Portman and a bipartisan group of Senators.  It sends a strong signal that we will not sit idly by while Backpage, and companies like it, cozy-up to traffickers and profit from the sale of children.  The victims of child sexual exploitation have waited too long for justice.  This bill is an important step toward rectifying that.”

Yasmin Vafa, Executive Director, Rights4Girls: “Rights4Girls applauds the introduction of The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017. This important legislation represents a tremendous bipartisan effort to seek justice for countless survivors of child sex trafficking that are marketed and sold on websites that shamelessly profit from their exploitation. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 will not only ensure that websites that knowingly or recklessly facilitate sex trafficking can be held liable for the harm that they cause, but it will provide a necessary and long awaited pathway to justice for survivors and their families… For years, survivors, advocates, and law enforcement have worked tirelessly to hold such websites accountable for fueling sex trafficking, but court after court has made it clear that it is on Congress to act. We therefore applaud Senators Portman, Blumenthal, McCain, McCaskill, Cornyn, and Heitkamp for their leadership in sponsoring this crucial measure that will at long last, provide an opportunity for survivors and their families to find justice.”

Andrea Powell, Founder and Executive Director, FAIR Girls: “FAIR Girls writes with enthusiastic support of the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017.” Survivors of sex trafficking have been exploited far too long by online advertisers who have manipulated and hid behind the Communications Decent Act of 1996. Their businesses have profited in the millions each year while victims only receive years of abuse, rape, and trauma. Survivors of sex trafficking deserve holistic justice and protection… Last year, a 14-year-old client of FAIR Girls was sold alongside another 13?year?old victim in two states by her trafficker who used Backpage.com to advertise her. Her trafficker was arrested, but her life is forever altered, now a traumatized trafficking survivor and a single teen mom. While we work to rebuild her life and restore her hope, we know that she needs true justice. We welcome the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” as we believe it will give her a chance to seek the civil damages that would enable her to thrive and heal with dignity. We welcome a chance to finally hold accountable those who enabled her serial rape for profit. We welcome justice for all survivors of sex trafficking and applaud your brave efforts to do so through the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.”

DeliverFund: “Freedom of expression on the internet is vital to the internet platforms we all enjoy, but exploitation of children should not be a second order effect of that freedom.  Protection of children is fundamental to our society and should be built into the framework of every policy and law governing the hosting of content on the internet.  There is no choice between freedom and the protection of children.  The internet can remain neutral, free, and protect children simultaneously, we have only to choose to make it so.  It is our hope that this bill will be the means that ends the immunity for the internet advertisement of children, and we applaud these Senators for taking such bold action.”

William J. Johnson, Executive Director, National Association of Police Organizations: “On behalf of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), I am writing to you to express our full support for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act… The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act addresses this issue and narrowly amends section 230 to allow states and victims to bring cases against bad actors that facilitate sex trafficking, while safeguarding the freedom of the internet. Therefore, NAPO stands ready to support with any efforts necessary to pass this important legislation.”

J. Thomas Manger, Chief of Police, Montgomery County Police Department and President, Major Cities Chiefs Association: “The Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing the Nation’s largest metropolitan law enforcement agencies, strongly supports any legislation that will help identify and bring to justice those in the heinous business of on-line sex trafficking. We believe the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 will do just that… The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act would change the language of the Communications Decency Act to ensure that those who create and operate websites to intentionally or recklessly facilitate sex trafficking will be held liable, and their victims will be able to seek justice. Those found to have assisted or supported such on-line sex-trafficking will also face federal charges. Finally, this legislation would enable state law enforcement officials to take action against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws. Currently, only the Department of Justice has such authority. Victims of this crime must live with physical and psychological repercussions for the rest of their lives. We believe that meaningful deterrents to be implemented with passage of this measure could spare countless women and children from becoming victims of sexual predators.”

Timothy Head, Executive Director, Faith & Freedom Coalition: “On behalf of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, I write to strongly support the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 which will empower law enforcement to effectively combat online sex trafficking hubs that provide a safe haven for modern day slave traders. We commend you for shining a light on the online marketplaces that profit from the growing epidemic of sex trafficking in the United States, and we encourage Congress and President Trump to join your effort to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to protect our most vulnerable citizens who are ensnared in the online sex trade…. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 is an important and critically needed reform that will protect women and children without undermining internet freedom or the first amendment. The vast majority of trafficking victims were sold on Backpage.com. Congress never intended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to serve as a liability shield to companies so that they could profit from the sale of women and children for sexual exploitation.”

Legal Momentum: “Legal Momentum fully endorses the Senate's efforts to clarify courts' misinterpretation of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  As the Senate makes clear, that statute was never intended to shield companies that facilitate online sex trafficking from civil or criminal liability.  While Backpage's content creation activities already make it liable under the current law, other companies like it should be held accountable for their involvement in selling children and adults for sex.  This legislation will ensure that sex trafficking victims can seek and finally obtain justice.”

Jayne Bigelsen, Director of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives Covenant House New York: “Covenant House International strongly supports the Stop Enabling Traffickers Act. As the Director of Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at Covenant House, we know the damage that Backpage has done to the lives of so many of our homeless young adults that we serve across the U.S.  In fact, in a small off site safe house that we operate out of Covenant House New  York, five out of five of our most recent residents were posted on Backpage either under age or against their will.  This legislation will finally clarify that the Communications Decency Act was never meant to automatically shield websites that engage in the crime of human trafficking from a civil or state criminal lawsuit.”

Mary Mazzio, 50 EGGS FILMS: “On behalf of the many Jane Doe survivors, their mothers and families, many of whom were portrayed in the documentary film, I AM JANE DOE, we fully support The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 sponsored by Senators Portman, Blumenthal, McCain, McCaskill, Cornyn, and Heitkamp…. This legislation clarifies Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (a 1996 law which protects website operators from liability for publishing third party content), made necessary by a stunning decision rendered by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Doe v. Backpage last year. In that case, several middle school children (who were bought and sold for commercial sex on Backpage.com) filed suit, asserting that Backpage facilitated their collective rape and the crime of child sex trafficking.  The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case, stating that even if Backpage had actively participated in this federal crime, the company was protected from liability under Section 230. In fact, the opinion advised the child plaintiffs to seek a legislative remedy.  … The children have done just that.  And we applaud the Senators who have heard their voices.  This narrow amendment to Section 230 makes it clear that judges can no longer dismiss the claims of sex trafficking victims where the website publisher is alleged to have engaged in criminal conduct.  It can no longer be legal in the United States to host advertisements of children for sale.”

Jerome Elam, President and CEO Trafficking in America Task Force: “As a survivor of child sex trafficking for seven years I fully support this legislation to clarify that CDA Section 230 was never meant to automatically shield websites that engage in the crime of human trafficking from a civil or state criminal lawsuit”

Love146: “Love146 welcomes the introduction of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 sponsored by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)…. This bill will provide an important clarification to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to ensure that websites that knowingly or recklessly facilitate sex trafficking, as defined by federal sex trafficking laws, can be held liable…. Love146 is committed to the end of child trafficking and exploitation, and considers accountability for all parties benefiting from the commercial sexual exploitation of children to be critical to achieving this vision. We applaud the strong bipartisan support for this important piece of legislation, and looks forward to its passage and the subsequent additional protections it will offer to survivors of human trafficking.”

Sherri Jefferson, Esq. Founder of the African American Juvenile Justice Project and #FemaleNOTFeemale: “On behalf of the African American Juvenile Justice Project and #FemaleNOTFeemale, which advocates for community accountability and responsibility, juvenile justice reform, youth leadership and for victims of sex trafficking, we hereby support clarification for legislation, which dismantles and disables commercial entities from profiting from sex trafficking.  This includes the establishment of websites and companies who escape criminal and civil liability for their third-party involvement in sex trafficking…. As the founder of AAJJP and FemaleNOTFeemale, I travel this country and abroad to educate policy makers and communities about the impact of sex trafficking. Via Project #17Ps, we incorporate the services of all stakeholders in eradicating sex trafficking.  We highly recommend that language is added to CDA Section 230, which states that it was never meant to automatically shield websites that engage in the crime of human trafficking from a civil or state criminal lawsuit.”

Michael Wear, Founder, Public Square Strategies and former Faith Outreach Director for President Barack Obama’s Re-election Campaign and Staffer in The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships (2009-2012): “As a former White House staffer under President Obama who worked on anti-human trafficking efforts, and as a Christian advocate for justice, I write in full support of the Stop Enabling Traffickers Act of 2017. This bill will help to ensure the United States offers no haven for those who would enable human trafficking, and it represents a critical step forward in the effort to end modern slavery.”

NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking: “The NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking (NJCAHT) unanimously supports legislation to close the loophole in the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It is vital to New Jersey victims that the current legal shield given to Internet advertising of child sex trafficking under the guise of free speech is removed. At the moment there is a different standard for print versus online media, and Internet publishers are not held to the same standard as off line publishers when advertising the sale of people - many of them children - by sex traffickers on their websites. This is wrong, and legislation to end this injustice is long overdue.”