Portman Urges Senate to Crack Down on Online Sex Trafficking, Pass SESTA
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last night, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) spoke on the Senate floor about how the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) would help ensure justice for victims of sex trafficking and hold accountable websites like Backpage.com, which knowingly facilitate sex trafficking. Today, Portman returned to the floor to share tragic stories of trafficking and to urge his colleagues to help end human trafficking. The bill, which now has more than 60 cosponsors, is supported by 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.
Transcript of the video can be found below and a link can be found here.
“First, I want to thank my friend and my colleague, Senator Blumenthal, for his commitment to this issue. We started the Caucus to End Human Trafficking six years ago, and during that time period there’s been some significant progress made here in the United States Senate and in the House. We’ve been able to pass legislation to help crack down on trafficking.
“I will tell you, unbelievably in this century, in this country, sex trafficking is increasing, not decreasing. So despite our good efforts—and we’ve increased the penalties on those who purchase sex from underage children; we have changed the dynamic as to how the federal government, HHS, looks at this issue to change these, again, girls who get engaged and get trapped into the system, to treat them like the victims they are rather than as criminals; we have done more to increase awareness of this issue; we have required that for missing kids, which are probably the most vulnerable of all, that there be a photograph provided and other identifiers, which, unbelievably, for the most part, there was not prior to that. So we have made some progress.
“Senator Blumenthal and I have written legislation to help with regard to contractors, government contractors, who are overseas and engage in human trafficking and our tax dollars go to that. So we’ve made some progress, but it is still increasing. Why? Senator Blumenthal talked about it. The experts are unified on this. The main reason you see an uptick is because of the dark side of the internet. It’s because there is about an 850 percent increase in reports of sex trafficking over the last several years prior to 2015. And the reason that was true was because you saw the emergence of these companies like Backpage.com, which probably has about 75 percent of the commercial sex traffic on one site. The ruthless efficiency of the internet got engaged in this issue. So we have got to address this issue.
“Here’s the tragic part of this. Not only are more and more lives being ruined, more and more heartbreaking stories, but it’s because of a federal law that provides immunity to these websites. So it comes right back here, right to these desks, right to this Congress, right to us as legislators to fix this problem—not try to smooth it over, but to actually fix the problem, which is that some of these online trafficking sites are immune from prosecution because of a federal law. It was a well-intended law. It was written 21 years ago—the Communications Decency Act. Ironically it was put in place, in part, to make it a crime to send pornography to kids online, but it’s been twisted and used by these trafficking sites to provide them the ability to say ‘you can’t touch us. You can’t go after us.’
“Part of what the law says in trying to promote the internet is that if you post somebody else’s material on your site, you’re not liable. All we’re saying is if you know that this involves trafficking, and Senator Blumenthal talked about his experience as a prosecutor, I mean this is a high bar—the knowing standard, then you can’t get away with this. And the standard we use, by the way, for what is trafficking, is the federal law. So we allow victims to have their day in court that they can’t get now.
“The stories are just really sad. Let me tell you one. We spent 18 months investigating this in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and what we learned was truly tragic. You had girls who were trafficked on these sites. In one case a mom testified that her daughter had gone missing for about 10 weeks, as I recall. Missing. This is a 14-year-old girl. What would you do as a parent if your daughter was missing for 10 weeks? You would go crazy. She tried everything. And somebody finally told her that ‘there is this website called Backpage.com, you might want to check it out.’ She did, and she was aghast by what she saw, but she was relieved by one thing, which was a photograph of her daughter showing that she was still alive. So she picks up the phone and calls Backpage.com and says ‘I just saw my daughter. She’s been missing for ten weeks. I saw her on your website. Thank you for taking down that ad, which is trying to sell my daughter for sex online. This is my daughter. She’s underage.’ You know what the Backpage operator said at the other end of the line, according to this mom? She said ‘did you pay for the ad, madam? Did you pay for the ad?’ She said, ‘no, I didn’t pay for the ad. That’s my daughter!’ She said ‘well, then we can’t take down the ad. We can’t take down the ad.’
“Now what kind of evil is behind that kind of a business practice? Well, we learned, as we increasingly dug into this issue, that it’s all about profit. You can imagine this is a very profitable business, and profits came first, to the point that people would place ads with Backpage that indicated that it was for an underage girl and Backpage then would get to the purchaser of the ad and say ‘you know what? You need to change the ad a little bit. You need to edit it. You need to edit out the word schoolgirl or cheerleader or Lolita,’ referring to a novel about an underage girl. So they knew these ads were being run by people who were advertising underage girls. They not only ran the ads, they sanitized the ads first. You know, that just shouldn’t happen in this country. It shouldn’t happen anywhere in the world, but certainly not with a federal law providing protection to organizations like that.
“That’s all we’re saying. We want congress to pass a law that says, you know what, if you engage knowingly in facilitating this kind of activity, you’re subject to liability. You have to be held to account. Is that too much to ask? Senator Blumenthal talked about it as a former prosecutor. We allow state prosecutors to go after these sites, which they cannot now. They have to use the federal standard. We’re not trying to create a whole new area of law. It is a federal standard that has been passed by this body. Second, these victims, when they go to court now and they are rebuffed and are told ‘sorry ma’am.’ As one court said last August, a Sacramento judge basically invited our legislation. He said to Congress, ‘you know what, the way that law reads, even somebody who exploits women and children online has immunity. Congress, this is your job.’ So that’s all this legislation does.
“Senator Blumenthal talked about the House legislation. There was strong House legislation that was introduced. It still bears the same H.R. number, and then it was changed in the Judiciary Committee. Look, I’m glad that there’s more awareness and consciousness about this issue and that both the House and Senate want to act, but let’s not water this legislation down. Let’s not take away this core element of our legislation that says, under the Communications Decency Act, that we should have the opportunity to allow people to sue—allow prosecutors to go after these evil websites. We can setup new causes of actions. That’s fine. We can do more things, as I said, in this body. Over the last five or six years we passed a number of important bills that tried to raise the consciousness and try to help on this issue. But you know what? If we don’t deal with this internet part, we will continue to see an increase, which is a stain on our national character, that at this time in our nation’s history we are seeing an increase in people being sold for sex online, often underage.
“Another story came, not from testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations where we spent 18 months studying this, but came before the Commerce Committee, and Senator Blumenthal was there and heard this. This woman came forward—by the way you could have heard a pin drop in that room when she talked—and talked about her 16-year-old daughter who was sold on Backpage.com. She was sold to a man who murdered her on Christmas Eve 2016. And what this mom said was ‘my daughter never should have been on that site. That should never be allowed.’ She’s right. It should never be allowed. How can we allow that to happen?
“So Senator Blumenthal and I introduced this legislation. We had 24 cosponsors almost right away. It was bipartisan from the start. This is not a political or partisan issue. As of today we have 64 cosponsors now. These are thoughtful members, including the presiding officer today, who have looked at this legislation and heard the arguments from both sides. By the way, the other side of the argument is by the tech community, some of whom support this legislation, some of whom do not. But for the people in technology who are concerned about this, I just have to tell you, I don’t get it. This is very narrowly crafted to this issue. We’re not trying to affect the freedom of the internet, just the opposite. If you don’t start cracking down on this obvious crime against humanity, which is what I believe trafficking is, I think you’re going to see much, much broader legislation to deal with the internet. This just says that if you’re violating the federal law on trafficking and you’re doing it knowingly, you’re facilitating it, you’re assisting it, that you have to be held liable and held to account.
“We keep in the law a Good Samaritan provision that says if a website wants to clean up its site, they are protected. The good guys should be protected. We want them to clean up their site. We want to be sure that we continue to have freedom of the internet, but we don’t want to allow, nor do I think it was ever intended in this law to allow, criminal activity to occur that affects our children, our constituents over the internet without any sense of accountability or responsibility. It is narrowly crafted. It is focused on a real issue that affects real people.
“On Friday, I was back home in Ohio. I was at a drug treatment center and I had the opportunity to meet with some of those who are recovering addicts, and as often happens when I’m in those kind of settings, it turns to what kind of treatment options are out there for trauma? Why? Because there’s a link between opioids, particularly heroin and fentanyl, and trafficking. So as has been told to me many times by some of these women, sometimes underage, ‘Senator, this has moved, trafficking has moved from the street corner to the iPhone. From the street corner to the cellphone.’ That’s a reality. And I met a woman on Friday who was going through treatment, and part of it is to treat the trauma that’s associated with this. Drug treatment is one thing, but the trauma associated with sex trafficking, repeated rapes, which, of course, makes it a deeper and more difficult road to recovery. I believe she will recover. She has a great attitude. She gets it. She will have to focus on it and dedicate herself to it.
“This is a real issue in our communities today. It is affecting every single state in this body. We cannot continue to ignore the reality that while the internet has brought a lot of good things to us and the internet has helped our economy to grow, there is a dark side, and this dark side of the internet is why we think it’s so important for us to address this issue, address it now so that that next mom who is out there right now wondering, where is my daughter? She’s gone missing. Won’t find that she has been advertised online to multiple men, that her life is forever changed. She will never achieve her God-given potential in life because of the trauma that she has experience. That’s happening right now, today.
“If we pass this legislation, it will help. I’m convinced it will help. It will help to avoid the reality today which is that these websites act with immunity. They don’t care and they are not going to care until we make them accountable.
“This month is Human Trafficking and Slavery month, January. President Trump just wrote a beautiful proclamation about it and it was a call to action. President Obama did previously. Thursday is the day in which a lot of the advocates will be here in town talking about this issue. I urge my colleagues and their staff if they’re listening today, please sign up on this legislation if you haven’t already, and to our leadership, please let’s get this to the floor for a vote. This should not be one of those issues that we drag out. Let’s deal with it. We have spent years studying this. We know what the issue is. We know what the problem is. To my House colleagues, let’s work together to actually solve this problem. And for those in the tech community who continue to oppose this legislation, I ask you to look into your hearts and think about the impact this is having on families all across the country. Yes, we all want a better world, and that’s part of what many of these internet companies are professing to want. And many of them, by the way, have spent considerable resources in fighting trafficking. But if you don’t get at this issue, it’s moved from the street corner to the smart phone. If you don’t get at this issue, I don’t believe we will see the progress that all of us desire.”