On Senate Floor, Portman Urges Senate to Pass SESTA, Help Stop Online Sex Trafficking

January 8, 2018 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a speech on the Senate floor today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) urged action on his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, legislation designed to ensure justice for victims of sex trafficking and ensure that websites such as Backpage.com, which knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, can be held liable and brought to justice. The bill, which now has more than 60 cosponsors, is supported by victims and advocates, anti-human trafficking leaders 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. Said Portman in his speech, “It’s not an issue of politics or partisanship, it’s about preventing exploitation and providing justice.”

Transcript of the video can be found below and a link can be found here.

“January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In a recent proclamation, President Trump continued what President Obama had begun in making this the ninth annual year where we designate our first month of the year to awareness and prevention of trafficking—awareness and prevention of this crime against humanity. And President Trump issued a call to action. The proclamation said in part, and I quote, ‘Human trafficking is a modern form of the oldest and most barbaric type of exploitation. It has no place in our world. This month we do not simply reflect on this appalling reality. We also pledge to do all in our power to end the horrific practice of human trafficking that plagues innocent victims around the world.’ Amen. I commend the president for this strong stance, and I commend the U.S. Senate for the work we have done over the past several years in a bipartisan way to help combat trafficking. We’ve made some progress. 

“About six years ago, Senator Blumenthal, who will speak later on the floor about this topic, and I co-founded the Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, and introduced legislation since that time to increase penalties on people buying sex from children, stopp international trafficking by U.S. government contractors overseas, find missing children more quickly, the most vulnerable among us, by ensuring that their photographs and other identifiers are available, improve data on trafficking to find out what the problem is, where it’s going, and of course changing the paradigm from treating children who are exploited as victims rather than, as they had been treated over the years, as criminals.

“We have made some progress in these areas, but I’ve got to tell you: despite these efforts and despite the increasing awareness of the fact that trafficking occurs right here in this country, in all of our states, we now know that one form of trafficking at least, sex trafficking, is actually increasing in our country. Think about that. It’s increasing in this country, in this century. And what experts say when you ask them about it is, ‘well, yeah, that’s primarily because of one reason, and that is the fact that the internet is being used to sell sex.’ And by the way, doing it on the internet, it turns out, occurs with ruthless efficiency.

“As victims I’ve visited across Ohio tell me, including one this past Friday, in Ohio, ‘Rob, it’s moved from the street corner to the iPhone.’ The street corner to the cell phone, the street corner to the internet. There was discussion earlier from my colleague from New York about the role that opioids play in causing harm in our society. Of course, the internet combined with opioids is deadly. Again, the young woman I met with on Friday was one of those who had become addicted to opioids, in her case fentanyl—incredibly powerful and dangerous drug—and depended on her trafficker to be able to provide that. That is one form of dependency you see in sex trafficking. Again, online is where people are increasingly being bought and sold.

“This increase in sex trafficking, to me, is a stain on our national character. It’s only Congress, by the way, that has the power to be able to stop it. There’s one website, Backpage.com, which is the leader in online sex trafficking. They have knowingly sold underage girls online. I say that because we have done an investigation and we have determined that. We now know from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that Backpage is involved in nearly 75 percent of all child trafficking reports the organization receives from the public. 

“The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair, along with then-Ranking Member Claire McCaskill and now-Ranking Member Tom Carper, conducted an extensive 18-month investigation into online sex trafficking and specifically Backpage.com. We found that Backpage knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young children. It coached the traffickers on how to edit adult classified ads to post so-called ‘clean’ ads for illegal transactions. And then it covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase their profits. All this was done at the cost of human suffering, and sometimes human life, with the sole purpose of increasing the company’s profits.

“In the fall, I testified on this issue in front of the Senate Commerce Committee about our legislation. With me at the witness table was Yvonne Ambrose, a mother whose sixteen year old daughter, Desiree, was found murdered on Christmas Eve 2016 after being sold for sex on Backpage. Desiree’s death should never have happened. Neither should online sex trafficking of minors happen at all. But this tragic trend is compounded by the fact that Backpage has evaded justice for its role in these tragic crimes.

“Courts across the country have consistently ruled that a federal law—and this is why Congress has such a key role to play here—a federal law called the Communications Decency Act actually protects Backpage and others for their liability they should have in sex trafficking. The Communications Decency Act is a well-intentioned law. It was originally enacted back in 1996 when the internet was in its infancy. It was meant to protect third party websites from being held liable for crimes that users might commit on those websites. Ironically, part of the original intention of the Communications Decency Act was to protect children from indecent material on the internet by holding liable users who sent explicit material to children. Now this same law is being used as a shield by cynical sex traffickers who promote and engage in online, underage sex trafficking with immunity thanks to this federal law.

“Congress didn’t intend for this broad immunity in the law. I’m convinced of that. But numerous courts across the country have made it clear that their hands are tied because of the legal precedent that has been formed. And as the lawmaking branch of the federal government, again, it’s up to Congress to fix this injustice. No one else can do it. In the most blatant call for Congressional action I’ve seen yet, in August of last year a Sacramento judge cited the broad immunity provided by the Communications Decency Act in dismissing pimping charges against Backpage.com. The court opinion stated: ‘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.’ That’s an invitation to Congress to act. It’s clearly up to Congress to act. It’s past time we update this 21-year-old law for the 21st century and allow victims who have had their most basic human rights violated get justice against those who facilitated these crimes. We have an opportunity this month during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month to fix this. We can, and we must.

“The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), is a bill I introduced with my bipartisan colleagues. Senator Blumenthal, who will speak later this afternoon, John McCain, Claire McCaskill, John Cornyn, Heidi Heitkamp, Amy Klobuchar and 18 other colleagues. That legislation, as of this morning, now has 64 cosponsors. It’s totally bipartisan, both sides of the aisle. It’s popular, 64 out of 100 have already cosponsored it because it will fix this injustice with two very narrowly crafted changes to the Communications Decency Act.

“First, it will allow victims to get the justice they deserve by removing the Communications Decency Act’s broad liability protections that were talked about by that judge, specifically for websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking crimes. Second, it will allow state attorneys general to prosecute these websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws. These changes will hold bad actors like Backpage accountable while doing nothing to impair the free internet, in fact protecting websites that do not actively and knowingly engage in online sex trafficking.

“The knowing standard, by the way, is a high bar to meet. The California Attorney General Xavier Becerra testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee about that last fall. He said ‘We have to prove criminal intent. We can’t win a prosecution unless we can show that the individuals we’re prosecuting, like Backpage, had the intent—the knowledge—to do what they’re doing. The legislation that you have before you is very narrowly tailored. It goes only after sex trafficking.’

“The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act passed the Commerce Committee by a vote that was unanimous. It was bipartisan, it was unanimous. And, by the way, the legislation has the support of an extraordinary coalition of law enforcement organizations, anti-trafficking advocates, trafficking victims, survivors, faith-based groups, and even some major tech players, though some in the tech community continue to be concerned. This [list of support] includes the Internet Association, which now represents companies such as Facebook, Reddit, Amazon, and others. It was endorsed by businesses, including Oracle, 21st Century Fox, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Walt Disney Company, and other companies have stepped up, like IBM and others to support.

“Last year, 50 attorneys general across this country wrote a letter to Congress calling on us to amend the Communications Decency Act in the exact way we are proposing in this bill. 50. Again, here in the Senate, 64 bipartisan senators have cosponsored the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. By the way, that 60+ cosponsors is significant because 60 is how many votes you need here in the United States Senate, if there are objections in the legislation, to be able to get it passed. We already have that many senators who have now put their name down and said they want to be a part of the solution to this tragic problem. They want to stop this increase in sex trafficking that unconscionably is happening here in this country, in this century.

“We shouldn’t wait any longer to pass this bill in the Senate. Every day we do, those who sell women and children will be allowed to continue that, continue to profit, and victims will continue to be denied justice. It’s not an issue of politics or partisanship, it’s about preventing exploitation and providing justice.

“I’m hopeful we can have a vote on this bill in the Senate this month, during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This Thursday and is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. I urge the leadership to have the bill on the floor as soon as possible. We’ve got every reason to act and no reason not to. These victims deserve justice. Congress should help provide it. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and passing that legislation is an opportunity.”