Portman Hails SESTA Becoming Law: “Today is a Big Day in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking”
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor today to highlight his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) becoming the law of the land. Senator Portman was present at the White House this morning when President Trump signed SESTA into law. On March 21st, the Senate passed Senator Portman’s bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) – by an overwhelming vote of 97-2 – as part of a broader House effort to help stop online sex trafficking and provide justice for victims.
Transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here or by clicking on the photo below.
“Today is a big day in the fight against sex trafficking, and I say that because I just got back a couple hours ago from a meeting at the White House where the president of the United States signed the legislation that we’ve been working on for several years to be able to push back against the sex trafficking that’s occurring online.
“It was very emotional. We had a lot of survivors, victims of sex trafficking, who were there. One of them was standing next to the president and when he signed the bill, he asked whether she wanted to say anything, and, fighting back tears, Yvonne Ambrose said, ‘Well, I want to tell you about my daughter.’ She told the president about her 16-year-old daughter who was trafficked on Backpage, a website that has most of the commercial sex traffic, and how she got a call on Christmas Eve a couple years ago that her daughter had been murdered.
“As she, said, ‘No mother should ever have to accept that call, take that call.’ And she talked about the fact that her daughter got dragged into this issue of trafficking and that she hopes that the legislation that we have passed will be able to save other daughters, other granddaughters, other Americans who otherwise would become part of this sex trafficking tragedy that we’ve seen unfold in our country.
“This legislation comes out of experiences we’ve all had when we go back home. We talk to victims and survivors, and we have learned over the past several years that trafficking is actually on the increase—in this country, in this century. So people think there’s trafficking going on but that it happens in Africa, or it happens in Asia or it happens in Latin America. It happens here. It happens in your community, probably. Unfortunately, it happens in my state of Ohio way too frequently.
“And what we also learned through our investigation and studies of this is that, increasingly, we were hearing about online trafficking, and survivors would tell me, ‘Rob, this has moved from the street corner to the smartphone.’ And there are some groups out there, including the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who showed that I think it was between 2005 and 2010 is a you had about an 800 percent increase in reports of trafficking. And all of them agree that most of that is attributable to one thing, which is the movement to the ruthless efficiency of the online selling of women and children.
“And one website in particular kept coming up, Backpage I mentioned earlier. So we launched an investigation, and over a two-year period at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations that I chair, we decided to really dig deep and find out what was going on and why it was happening and what the nature of this was. And what we found was shocking.
“The Ranking Member of that committee is Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. She and I did this investigation together with our committee. We issued the report together. It was bipartisan from the start, I would say even nonpartisan—and nonpartisan and bipartisan to this day. This investigation involved asking Backpage for a lot of information that they were unwilling to give, so we had to subpoena them. Then they still refused to provide the information, so we had to come in this chamber, to the United States Senate, and get a vote of the entire Senate—the first time in 21 years we had to do this—to be able to enforce these subpoenas.
“So every member of this body got engaged and involved in this. By the end of the process, we had a unanimous vote from the Senate to say, yes, you should be able to enforce your subpoenas and force people to provide relevant information to the committees that are doing oversight like ours. And so we got the permission here to enforce it, which meant potential criminal sanctions, and they still wouldn’t give us the information because they fought us at the district court level. They lost there. We won at the circuit court level. Then we had to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. We won there. Then yes, they did provide us about a million documents.
“They still refused to testify. They took the Fifth, but they did provide us the documents because they had to under threat of penalty of law. Through those documents, we found out something shocking, which was that not only were they selling women and girls online and making a lot of money doing it, but that they were purposely selling underage girls and trying to hide the fact that they were doing it. Think about that, they were not only selling girls and women online, but they were taking ads for underage girls, knowing they were underage, and yet running the ads anyway.
“In fact, they would go to the people who were trying to place the ads and say, ‘You know what? You need to change this word. You can’t use the word ‘schoolgirl’ because that indicates this girl is under age. You can’t use the word ‘cheerleader’ because that shows she is underage. You can’t use the word ‘lolita’, which is a novel about a young girl and older man, you can’t use the description of the girl and put her age in there because she is underage, but we want your ad anyway.’
“They edited the ads. You would think a prosecutor would be able to go after these people. They are engaged in illegal activity online but if that activity was happening here offline, on the street corner in your community, it would be illegal. But when the prosecutors went after these people online and when the victims of trafficking, like the woman I talked about earlier whose 16-year-old daughter was murdered while she was trafficked on Backpage, when they went after Backpage in that case, they were unsuccessful. Why? because they said, ‘Yes, Desiree died. Yes, Desiree would have a lawsuit here as well as other women and families who came to testify before us. Kubikii Pride is one, her daughter was there today. But there’s a federal law that says we, the courts, can’t even take up this case because the federal law provides an immunity, a shield to these websites.’
“Unbelievable. We had a court in Sacramento last year to tell Congress, basically, ‘please change this law’. They said, ‘We can’t stop this exploitation.’ They said, ‘This alleged exploitation of women and girls, we can’t stop it because Congress has passed a law that protects these websites. No one can go after them.’
“So the more we learned, the more we dug, the more we found out what was really going on. We determined that our report, which you can see here—and I encourage you to go and check out this report, you can find it online, ‘Backpage report’ is the search, and look on ‘portman.senate.gov’. Go to portman.senate.gov and you’ll see this report if you’re interested in it. We have a summary as well. What it says basically is they’re trafficking these individuals, and they know they’re doing it. And yet they’re immune.
“So once we determined that that was our issue, we determined it was time for us to figure out legislation to actually change a federal law that was permitting it. The culmination of that was today when the president of the United States signed that law. But for a couple of years, you know, we had quite a legislative struggle because you had a lot of individuals who said, ‘You can’t touch these internet companies because of this law.’ The law was passed 21 years ago at the infancy of the internet. It was well-meaning, but I do not believe that any member of this body intended when they passed that law to say you should be able to traffic people online knowingly and not pay some consequence for it, not be accountable for it.
“So we made a very narrow carve-out for trafficking of individuals online. We made sure that it was consistent with the federal criminal law that was already in place if you were to do it offline. We ensured there was a ‘Good Samaritan’ provision so if a website was in good faith trying to clean up its site and edit its site and get information off it they would not be liable. That safe harbor provision was in our legislation, and we proceeded to try to get it passed.
“We had a lot of push back, particularly from the tech communities. Not everybody in the tech communities but certain people who believed strongly this legislation, which will change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, was a threat to internet freedom. I do not believe that to this day. I believe it is targeted. It is responsible. And it certainly is an issue where you would think everybody would agree that just because you’re online doesn’t mean you’re not accountable and responsible for selling people online, again, in the context of more and more trafficking in this country.
“We were able to bring it to the floor for a vote after a committee process. We went through the Permanent Subcommittee Investigations. We went through the Commerce Committee. We got, at the end of the day, a vote in this chamber of 97-2. That rarely happens around here. Rarely, if ever. And then again, today, finally the president signed the bill.
“It looks like it was easier to do at the end. I will tell you a couple of years ago we were told this will never happen. ‘You can’t make this happen. You can’t beat us. We have a lot of power. We have a lot of lobbyists. We have a lot of abilities to stop you in the committee.’ And yet, through persuasion and, frankly, through the personal testimony of victims, survivors, who were willing to come forward and courageously share their story, we were able to prevail.
“So today it was a victory not just for this body, not for the legislative process, but it was a victory for those victims and those survivors. And as one mom told me today, ‘This means my granddaughter won’t have to worry about this issue. It means when my kid goes to the mall, I don’t have to worry as much about what might happen, who might try to take her into this web of trafficking.’
“My hope is that this legislation will be able to curb the online trafficking in a significant way, and already we’re seeing the results of that. I was told today, in fact, that websites are shutting down all over America that traffic people online because they don’t want to be sued, because they’re losing their immunity. It’s not affecting the freedom of the internet, but it is affecting those evil websites that were engaged in criminal activity and hiding behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
“We also had something else happen that was interesting this week. The Department of Justice went after Backpage, and they actually indicted seven individuals. If you look at the indictment, which I have here, you can find this by going on the Justice Department website, I’m sure. It’s in the district court in Arizona. You’ll see that they name seven individuals here. These are the same seven individuals that we named in our report, you’ll see. They also used the information from our report about the fact that Backpage was changing ads, editing ads. In other words, knowingly allowing ads to run about underage girls because they wanted to have the profits. And that’s exactly what is talked about in this indictment.
“So the work of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was very important because it enabled us to be able to provide to the Justice Department information that they then used for these indictments. We provide that information 10 months ago, and the indictments came out in the last several days. My hope is that now, because this law has passed, we’ll see a lot more prosecutions, because we have now allowed state prosecutors, attorneys general around the country, we’ve allowed local prosecutors, district attorneys, county prosecutors who are the ones that ultimately are going to be much more effective and more able to go after this kind of activity to do so.
“Backpage has been in existence for 14 years, and until this week, the federal Justice Department had not made these indictments. So it was great that they did it. It’s also about time, in my view. And now we have again this tool to be able to allow other prosecutors to be more aggressive to do what should have been done years ago to save the lives of so many girls, women, boys whose lives have been taken off track because of the trauma associated with this. We also now have the opportunity for the victims themselves to be able to file lawsuits. And I think this, again, is already having a chilling effect. In other words, it’s already taking down these websites who don’t want to be sued because they know that our legislation, although very narrowly crafted, applies to them because they are knowingly involved, supporting, assisting sex trafficking.
“So I think this is a victory, again, for the victims, the survivors and maybe most importantly the potentially future victims. It’s an opportunity for us also to celebrate something that this chamber has accomplished in a bipartisan way going through the right process, doing the research, coming up with the facts, narrowly crafting legislation that works. It doesn’t have negative impacts but in fact helps to change behavior, and we’re already seeing it. My hope is that we’ll do some more of that around here.
“We have a lot of other issues to address. We talked about the opioid crisis earlier, and Congress has passed some good legislation there, but we need to do more. We have an issue with getting people back to work who are in the shadows of our economy, some of whom have a felony record, some of whom are addicted to opioids, some of whom don’t have the skills to be able to engage in a modern economy. That’s a huge challenge. To me it’s unbelievable that we have so many people who are in our country but not in our labor force.
“Our labor force participation rate as economists call it is as low as it’s ever been in the history of our country. Probably nine million men between 25 and 55 who are able-bodied are not working today. That’s wrong. So there’s lots of issues we need to address, and if we can do those studies in the same way and come up with sensible solutions based on research, based on good practices and keep it not just bipartisan but nonpartisan, just to say let’s get the politics out of this.
“Let’s try to figure out how to actually help people, which is our job around here. That’s what we were elected to do. I think we can make progress in a number of different areas. Today at the signing ceremony for this legislation, SESTA legislation, I had the opportunity to see a friend of mine, Theresa Flores who runs a group called Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, SOAP.
“The reason she uses that acronym SOAP is Theresa who is a survivor, was trafficked years ago and has a passion for this issue, she calls her organization SOAP because she goes to sporting events around the country where there tends to be an increase in trafficking. What she does is she goes to the hotels and asks them to put a bar of soap in the bathroom. And on that bar of soap, she has listed the national hotline for sex trafficking where a girl can call that number and have someone come rescue her and escape from her trafficker.
“And that simple act of making these bars of soap, getting the hotels to place them in these bathrooms, has been remarkably effective. You think about it, these girls or women may have no other time where they have privacy where you don’t have the trafficker with them, where you’re not feeling the duress. Their private moment in the bathroom, they see the number, many of them have called that number and have been able to escape this life and get back to a productive life with treatment, with support, with the kind of longer-term recovery that’s needed to get through the trauma, to get through in many cases drug addiction because drugs are involved in this as you can imagine as a way to make these women and girls and boy dependent.
“In fact, in Ohio, unfortunately that’s the common practice, is that drugs are involved. So Theresa Flores has done something incredible. She has channeled her frustration and all of the trauma she went through into something very constructive. Well, she was there today, and her comment to me was that by this act, by passing this law, we are going to save lives, and we’re going to enable future generations not to go down the tragic and dark road that she had to go down.
“So that should make us feel good in this chamber. It should make us feel good for those whose lives can be helped through this and for those victims at least the opportunity to have their day in court to be able to see justice.
“I thank the president of the United States for signing the legislation today. I thank Ivanka Trump in particular for her support of the legislation all along the way. And I hope that this legislation will be a model for others to come.”
NOTE: The legislation is the result of a two-year Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) inquiry, led by Senators Portman and McCaskill, which culminated in a report entitled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking,” which found that Backpage 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 bill has widespread support among trafficking survivors, anti-human trafficking advocates and law enforcement, 50 Attorneys General, the civil rights community, faith-based groups, the larger tech community, and courts and judges who have made clear that it is Congress’ responsibility to act to protect sex trafficking victims.