Sen. Rob Portman’s fight to keep websites from selling children and women online for sex is being met with resistance by Silicon Valley.
Portman, R–Ohio, who along with a small group of senators has waged a years-long battle against Backpage, a classified site infamous for being the leading online market to purchase children for sex, is trying to amend a 1996 law in order to make it harder to sell people for sex online.
The 1996 Communications Decency Act, meant to regulate pornography on the Internet, included a provision that aimed to protect website operators from third parties that might post harmful or illegal material on their site.
Backpage, Portman said, used that 26-word provision in the law to protect themselves from litigation, even as victim after victim tried to sue the site for selling them online. Portman’s bill would change that, allowing sex trafficking victims to sue websites that knowingly allow sex trafficking on their site. His bill would also allow state and local law enforcement to prosecute sites that violate federal sex trafficking laws.
But his effort is being fought by internet companies who fear the law would subject them to unnecessary litigation and would limit their freedom of speech. One organization has been posting online ads on Facebook and Twitter arguing against his bill, and the Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook and Microsoft, have been among those to oppose the bill.
But at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday, Portman said his bill is crafted narrowly to protect sites that inadvertently publish illegal or harmful content and aim, instead, at those who are knowingly selling people for sex, as he said Backpage did. The site shut down its “adult” section in January, but still posts “dating” ads online.
He said three-fourths of sexual trafficking victims are exploited online. Many times, he said, predators make their first connection to the victim online. And sex trafficking, he said, is increasing.
He recently visited Youngstown, where he met with a girl whose father began selling her for sex at age nine, bringing her from city to city to sell her at sporting events. She was raped as often as 20 times a day.
The fact that this occurs, Portman said, is “an outrage. It’s a disgrace. And I believe history is going to judge us on how we respond to it.”
But on the other end of the spectrum is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who wrote the provision now being targeted in Portman’s bill.
He argues Portman’s bill would stifle free speech as well as the very innovation that has caused the Internet to thrive. While he opposes sex trafficking, “I just believe the legislation being considered…is the wrong answer to an important question. “
Eric Goldman, Professor, Santa Clara University School of Law, said the bill would inadvertently hurt the companies that try to moderate harmful or illegal content on their sites. The bill, he said, “doesn’t limit itself to bad actors; it applies to the entire Internet and force services doing moderation to comprehensively review all content they receive.”
Supporters of the bill, however, found a powerful voice in Yvonne Ambrose, whose daughter, Desiree Robinson, died late last year at the age of 16.
Desiree, said Yvonne Ambrose, “was the light of my life, my firstborn, my only daughter, my heart, my world. And Desiree made me a better person, because she was a beautiful person. She had the brightest smile that could light up a room.”
Desiree had been smart, kind and loving, but searched for love and acceptance beyond her family and friends. An adult man found her on social media, preyed on her and pressured her to sell herself online. On Dec. 23, 2016, a 32-year-old man named Antonio Rosales looked her up through Backpage. The pimp drove her to meet Rosales. One day later, Rosales beat her, raped her, strangled her, and then slit her throat.
If she had not been sold on Backpage, her mother said, she might still be alive today.
“It could be your child,” she said, in tears, surveying the senators on the dais. “Your niece, your nephew, your cousins, your friend’s children next, if you don’t stop this…if you’re going fix this problem, fix it.”