Portman on Senate Floor: We Owe it to Victims of Human Trafficking to Hold Companies like Backpage Accountable

August 1, 2017 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a speech on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) shared stories of human trafficking atrocities and discussed how legislation he recently introduced with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and two dozen of his bipartisan colleagues—the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act—will help hold accountable companies like Backpage that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. Said Senator Portman in his speech: “The victims of sex trafficking know evil far worse than many of us could ever imagine. The trauma they go through is unbelievable. We owe it to them to hold these predators accountable and to fix the flaws in the justice system that allow people complicit in these crimes to profit from human misery and suffering. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will do just that.”

Transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

I would like to talk today about the criminal act of sex trafficking. Today we introduced legislation that is incredibly important to combating sex trafficking. The Senate also passed a resolution today, by unanimous consent, to provide information to the Justice Department that comes out of an investigation that we did here in the United States Senate regarding sex trafficking. This is an important day in pushing back. 

“Let me talk about this for a second in personal terms. Imagine, if you will, that your daughter is missing. You do everything you can do to find her. Finally, you see her picture on the internet, and she's being sold for sex. That may sound like a horror movie to you, but it's very real. Unfortunately, it's happening across our country. Families in Ohio and in your state have experienced this nightmare situation. 

“Let me tell you about Kubiiki Pride. Kubiiki Pride gave powerful testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations here in the United States Senate. And what Ms. Pride said was that her daughter had been missing for nine months when she found her picture on the top website for commercial sex activity: Backpage.com. She was actually glad to have found her daughter, so she called Backpage.com and said ‘that's my daughter. She has been missing for nine months. She is 14 years old. Thank you for taking down the ad.’ Backpage.com said to her, ‘did you pay for the ad?’ She said ‘no, it's my daughter. It’s my 14-year-old daughter.’ They said ‘we're not going to take down the ad. You didn't pay for it.’ Imagine that. Imagine that this is your daughter. Imagine how you would feel. 

“These traffickers are using the internet to sell girls, to sell women. Congress has a responsibility to act. We have a responsibility to act because human trafficking has now become a national crisis. We're told that human trafficking, including sex trafficking, is now a $150 billion a year industry. That makes it the second biggest criminal enterprise in the world, only behind the drug trade. And this ruthless, corrupt industry is significantly growing. Why? Because of the internet; because of the digital age. As victims of sex trafficking have told me, ‘Rob, this has gone from the street corner to the smart phone.’

“Since 2007, the Polaris Project, which is a leading anti-trafficking advocacy group, has received more than 33,000 reports of human trafficking through its various hotlines. By the way, Polaris endorsed our legislation today, which I appreciate. In 2016 alone, Polaris-operated hotlines received more than 8,000 reports of human trafficking. Almost 25 percent of trafficking instances reported to Polaris in the past decade happened just in one year, just last year. Human trafficking reports through these hotlines have gone up dramatically: 35 percent between 2015 and 2016. 

“There is no reason to believe this trend will reverse unless we act. This is a 21st century epidemic. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children noted an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking through its ‘Cyber Tipline’ from 2010 to 2015. Over five years, an increase of over 800 percent. They found this dramatic spike to be ‘directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.’ That's what's going on. 

“How is this happening? People are being bought and sold on public domains, accessible from a simple search. This is not the dark web. This is public domains. The majority of online sex trafficking, again, can be traced to one website. It's called Backpage.com. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that 73 percent, nearly three quarters of all suspected child sex trafficking reports it receives from the general public, come from this one website. And according to leading anti-trafficking organizations, including Shared Hope International, service providers working with child sex trafficking victims have reported that between 80 percent and 100 percent of the victims that they help were bought and sold on Backpage.com. 

“My experience in Ohio is similar to that. I will tell you anecdotally as I talk to women and girls who have been victims of sex trafficking, almost all of them tell me they have been sold on Backpage. By the way, almost all of them tell me that they have become addicted in the process to opioids, heroin, or prescription drugs, and that's used to keep their dependency on their trafficker. 

“In January of this year, a nearly two-year investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations produced a report finding Backpage to be more deeply complicit in illegal online sex trafficking than anyone imagined. Everyone already knew that sex trafficking was taking place on this website. It's there. But our report found that Backpage actively and knowingly facilitated the criminal sex trafficking of women and children, and then it covered up evidence of these crimes to increase its own profits. This is the information we have now provided to the Department of Justice. 

“We also know from a recent Washington Post report that despite its claims, Backpage aggressively solicited and created sexual ads to lure customers to its website. The company claims it leads the industry in its screening of illegal activity, including sex ads for children, but we know that simply isn’t true. To the contrary, it appears the industry Backpage leads is online sex trafficking, valuing its profits more than vulnerable women or children. They have known their site has been used for illegal sex trafficking for years, but instead of working to put a stop to it, the company has actually facilitated these crimes. That's why Congress has to act. 

“Last month, along with Senator McCaskill and Senator Carper, I recommended the Department of Justice launch a criminal review of Backpage.com. And today, again, the Senate passed our resolution releasing materials from our 18-month investigation to the DOJ. I hope the Department of Justice will join in this fight against Backpage, but I believe achieving justice for these victims requires a legislative fix once and for all. 

“There is a recent documentary that I would encourage you to look at, powerful, tough, but it's important. It's called ‘I Am Jane Doe.’ It chronicles the cases of three young girls who were sex trafficked, bought and sold on Backpage. In 2014 these girls brought cases against Backpage, accusing them of knowingly assisting in their trafficking. The ads on Backpage for each of these girls explicitly promoted their youth. These were underage girls. The court found that the victims made strong cases that Backpage tailored its site to make underage sex trafficking easier, but the court ruled that third-party websites facilitating sex trafficking are immune from charges brought on by victims—no matter how complicit the website was in the crime, citing the blanket immunity granted by a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act, or CDA. Around the same time in Massachusetts, three young victims sued Backpage after they were bought and sold on the website. They, too, argued that Backpage tailored its website to make sex trafficking easier. The case reached the First Circuit Court of Appeals, but Backpage was once again spared of any legal ramifications because of the Communications Decency Act. Specifically, Section 230 of that law, the clause courts credit to give third-party providers blanket immunity from crimes committed on its website. 

“Despite its ruling, the court recognized the immoral nature of Backpage appearing to profit from online prostitution, but they maintained they couldn't do anything about it because the law protected these acts. The court opinion stated that in order to fix the problem, ‘the remedy is through legislation, not litigation.’ That's where we are. We're the legislators. The Court of Appeals said Congress, do your job. Numerous judicial decisions have suggested Congress must act before the courts to bring justice to the victims and families of online sex trafficking, and that's our intention in introducing our legislation today. 

“Now I believe that we need to have a free internet, all of us do, and I believe the Communications Decency Act is well-intentioned. It has an important purpose. But the law was not intended to protect those who knowingly facilitate illegal conduct like sex trafficking, and it certainly wasn't intended to protect Backpage.com. 

“That's why today, along with my colleagues, we have introduced this bill called Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. The bill clarifies Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to ensure websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking can be held liable and the victims can get justice. It's very narrow. You have to knowingly be involved in supporting, assisting, or facilitating sex trafficking. This will not be a broad net. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act would put in place three very narrowly crafted, common sense reforms. First, it allows victims to seek justice against websites that knowingly facilitate crimes against them. Second, it eliminates the federal liability protections for websites that assist, support or facilitate the violation of federal sex trafficking laws, these are laws that are already on the books. Finally it will enable state law enforcement, not just the Department of Justice, to take legal action if these businesses violate federal sex trafficking laws. 47 attorneys general have asked for this. 

“The internet has revolutionized illegal sex trafficking, and federal law simply has not kept pace. It's time for this 21-year-old law to be brought into this century. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is legislation our courts have been calling for, our attorneys general have been calling for, and most importantly, the victims and their families have been insisting that we do. Again, this law was never intended to protect sex traffickers who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable among us. And this narrowly crafted bill gives law enforcement the tools they need to go after the criminals who traffic women and children online for sex. 

“There are some groups that have been critical of this effort to hold Backpage accountable and to stop this online exploitation. They have suggested that this bipartisan bill could impact mainstream websites and service providers, the good actors out there. This is false. Our bill does not amend and thus preserves the Communications Decency Act's ‘Good Samaritan’ provision. This provision simply protects good actors who proactively block or screen for offensive material and thus shields them from any frivolous lawsuits. That's in the legislation and it needs to be in there. This bipartisan legislation preserves internet freedom while holding those who actively facilitate online sex trafficking accountable. 

“I recently visited a place in Ohio called the Ranch of Opportunity. It's a place of hope for girls between the ages of 13 and 18 to find healing and recovery during a residential treatment program. Most of the girls on the ranch, I am told, have been victims of sex trafficking. As I heard heartbreaking stories from these girls who have had their most basic human rights stripped from them, Backpage came up. As I said earlier, it almost always does. They can never take back the horrors they had to endure. What we can do, though, and what this legislation will do is bring justice to these victims and their families. I'm proud to stand by with my 20, now 25, bipartisan colleagues as well as 18 anti-trafficking advocacy groups and law enforcement organizations from around the country who support this legislation as we fight against this evil. The president and CEO Of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in a letter of support wrote, ‘this bill will help ensure justice for child sex trafficking victims and clarifies remedies available to civil attorneys and state attorneys general to assist victims in holding everyone responsible who participated in their trafficking.’ That's what it's about. 

“It's about securing justice for those who have had their most basic human rights taken away. It's about protecting vulnerable women and children. The victims of sex trafficking know evil far worse than many of us could ever imagine. The trauma they go through is unbelievable. We owe it to them to hold these predators accountable and to fix the flaws in the justice system that allow people complicit in these crimes to profit from human misery and suffering. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will do just that.”