Portman: "Congress Can Fix this Injustice" of Online Sex Trafficking

September 19, 2017 | Press Releases

Portman Testifies at Senate Hearing on Bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman testified before the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing on his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Said Portman in his testimony, “the fact that instances of human trafficking and sex trafficking are actually increasing in this country—in this century—is an outrage. It’s a disgrace, and I believe history is going to judge us on how we respond to it.” Video and transcript of his remarks can be found below:

Chairman Thune, thank you for holding this hearing today and for your personal commitment and Senator Nelson’s personal commitment to combating this horrific crime of sex trafficking. I want to thank my colleagues around the panel. Many of you have stepped up early on, co-sponsored this legislation, and played a critical role  in us getting to this point. We have passed legislation—Senator Thune’s been part of that—over the years. This Congress has done more on sex trafficking over the last few years than we have in our history. But, the reality is, it’s on the increase. It’s for one reason—according to all the experts—and that’s the online sale of girls, children, women. So, we have to face that reality and deal with it. And again I appreciate the fact that you’re having the opportunity to hear not just from us, and I appreciate my colleague being here—Senator Blumenthal and I are co-founders of the caucus to end human trafficking and we’re partners in this effort—but you’re going to hear from victims too, as I understand it.  I think Yvonne Ambrose is here, and Yvonne is going to talk about her tragic personal story. It’s heartbreaking.

“As a father of three, and I see many parents here on the panel today and behind us, it’s unimaginable this could be going on in the 21st century. So again, thank you to all the witness, but particularly Yvonne for showing the courage to come forward and talk about the horror that she has experienced and sharing that story with us.

“This increase of sex trafficking a stain on our national character. It is. The fact that it’s going on in this country at this time. Based on the information we have received from law enforcement—and law enforcement is by the way strongly behind this legislation. As you know, they have endorsed it across the board—the District Attorneys, the U.S. Attorneys, the [Fraternal Order of Police]. They tell us the increase is real and that it’s primarily based on this increase on the internet. By the way, the tech community does not deny that.

“For example, a Google executive wrote an op-ed earlier this Spring, saying, ‘Technology’s role in human trafficking cannot be ignored—as the example of Backpage demonstrates. The sad reality is that three out of four child sex trafficking victims in the U.S. have been exploited online. And perpetrators often make their first connections to victims on the Internet.’ This is a Google executive. I believe Google wants to fight back against trafficking, and I think she’s right.

“I see this reality myself as I visit with survivors, and I’m sure all of you have had this experience back home in talking to victims and survivors. Repeatedly they tell you the same thing: trafficked on Backpage. Usually drugs are involved as well. As sex trafficking victims have told me, and this comes from probably a half dozen different victims, which is that ‘Senator, this has moved from the street corner or the street to the smartphone.’ That’s where it’s moved and that’s where there is this ruthless efficiency.

“Last month, I spoke with some victims in Youngstown, Ohio, and of course Backpage came up, because that’s how they said they were trafficked. A young woman told me that she was first sold on Backpage at age nine. She told me tearfully that her father would take her from city to city for major sporting events and sell her—up to 20 times a day. Ruthlessly efficient.

“With Ranking Member Claire McCaskill, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, has spent the last couple of years investigating Backpage. We took a deep dive. We found, unfortunately, that the website is far more complicit in these crimes than anyone previously thought. We were able to show that Backpage was actively and knowingly involved in illegal sex trafficking, and it covered up evidence of its crimes in order to increase its profits. And thank you, every member of this panel, for voting to hold them in contempt when they refused to testify, when they refused to provide information. We took it all the way to the Supreme Court. Thanks to the Senate for the first time in 21 years holding a private actor in contempt of Congress. And we were successful in getting a million documents that showed clearly that they actively and knowingly involved in illegal sex trafficking.

“Despite these facts, efforts by trafficking survivors and law enforcement to hold Backpage accountable have failed repeatedly. Why? Because courts around the country have ruled that Backpage has broad immunity under a federal law—the Communications Decency Act. It’s a 1996 law that has not kept us with the times.

“When Congress enacted this law, I do not believe it intended to shield anyone from responsibility for serious federal crimes, much less sex trafficking. In looking at the legislative history, I believe the goal was to protect website operators who were acting in good faith—and that made sense—who lacked knowledge that third parties were posting harmful or illegal content on their sites.

“We all believe in free speech. I think everyone on this panel believes that we ought to have Internet freedom. But the Communications Decency Act was never intended to protect those that engage in illegal conduct, and it was certainly never intended to protect online predators and sex traffickers. In fact, nothing in the original text of this law suggests that there should be an all-encompassing immunity for websites like Backpage that knowingly engage in sex trafficking.

“Judges across the country have made it clear that it is Congress’ responsibility to fix this law. They have invited us to fix this law.

“Last year, the First Circuit Court of Appeals recognized Backpage’s role in the horrific crime of sex trafficking, but the court ruled that its hands were tied, stating, ‘The remedy is through legislation, not litigation.’

“And just last month, a court in Sacramento threw out pimping charges against Backpage because of the Communications Decency Act. That court made an even more obvious call to Congress, 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’s up to us.

“Because of this interpretation of the law over the last 20 years, only the Congress can fix this injustice. That is why we have introduced this legislation. It’s bipartisan. It’s common-sense. It’s targeted. It’s called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

“It would do just two things. First, it would allow sex trafficking victims to get the justice they deserve against websites that knowingly, knowingly facilitate sex trafficking against them. Second, it would allow state and local law enforcement to prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws. I know Xavier Becerra, Attorney General of California is going to talk about that.

“This knowing standard in our legislation is a high bar, as the lawyers around this panel know. They have to be proven to have knowingly facilitated, supported, or assisted in online sex trafficking to be liable in the first place. Because the standard is so high, our bill protects good tech actors and targets rogue online traffickers like Backpage. Our bill also preserves the ‘Good Samaritan’ provision in the law that protects good actors who proactively screen for offensive material. I believe Google, Facebook, and other legitimate websites do and they should have that Good Samaritan protection. And that’s in the law.

“Support is growing for the legislation. As I mentioned, we have lots of support from the law enforcement community. Also dozens of survivor groups, some are here today, anti-trafficking coalitions, and faith-based groups. We appreciate the encouragement from some prominent members of the tech community. Oracle has endorsed the legislation, 21st Century Fox endorsed it last week. Just yesterday, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise endorsed the legislation as did the Walt Disney Company. They’ve all joined in this mission to stop this criminal sex trafficking online.

“Fifty attorneys general from across the United States recently urged Congress to support this legislation. Again, we will hear from the California Attorney General, our former colleague, Xavier Becerra.

“But let me just say this: the fact that instances of human trafficking and sex trafficking are actually increasing in this country—in this century—is an outrage. It’s a disgrace, and I believe history is going to judge us on how we respond to it.

“Silicon Valley holds itself as being more than just another industry—but rather a movement to make the world a better place. In so many ways, the Internet has contributed to our world, but the selling of human beings online is the dark sides of the Internet. It can’t be the cost of doing business, and it doesn’t make the world a better place.        

“And there is something we can do about it—this legislation will help, this committee can act to stop criminal sex trafficking online.

“Thank you for allowing me to testify today.”