WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor yesterday discussing the growing support for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and urged the Senate to vote on the bill and send it to the president’s desk. SESTA passed the House overwhelmingly early last week and was endorsed by the White House later in the week.

Said Portman in his speech, “We’ve got an opportunity to do something important here, to create a better, safer, and more just society. I’m hopeful next week we’ll have that legislation before this body, we’ll have the debate, we’ll pass the legislation and begin to provide these victims of trafficking for the justice they deserve—and most importantly, to stop women and children from being exploited online.”

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

“I want to talk about something else we are working on here in Congress to create a brighter future for many Americans. I’m talking about our efforts to provide justice for victims of sex trafficking and to hold accountable those online entities, those websites, that knowingly facilitate these evil crimes. I’m talking about this because, although this week we’re focused on these reforms to Dodd-Frank to help our smaller banks be able to make the economy stronger, help individuals and small companies, next week we hope to take up this issue of sex trafficking.

“We’re closer than ever to getting this legislation passed, and just recently we had some good news in our bipartisan effort. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, a bill I introduced with 24 senators back in August, is gaining momentum here in Congress. Last week, the House of Representatives actually offered the SESTA legislation as an amendment on the floor to a broader bill, and it passed by an overwhelming vote, with over 300 votes.

“Just a couple days later, the White House expressed their support for this legislation. It is now the Senate’s turn to act on this critically important issue. Leader McConnell here, the leadership in the Senate, again has made a commitment to me and my colleagues that we will hold a vote on this sex trafficking legislation, the SESTA legislation, in the next couple of weeks.

“We now have 67 Senate cosponsors for SESTA. That’s not typical around here. It’s a majority of Democrats. It’s a majority of Republicans. Two-thirds of the senators in this body, and, by the way, this is a diverse group, wide-ranging political, ideological backgrounds. They have all signed onto this legislation because they want to be part of the solution.

“It’s a common-sense solution to what is unfortunately a growing problem here in our country and in every state represented here in this body. Unbelievably, sex trafficking is increasing in this country right now. In this century, in this country, sex trafficking is actually increasing. How could that be? The experts tell us it’s because of the online presence, these evil websites that are selling women and children online, the ruthless efficiency of social media, of the online presence of these websites is what’s causing this increase.

“As victims of sex trafficking in Ohio told me as I have met them, ‘Rob, this has moved from the street corner to the smartphone.’ One website called Backpage.com is the industry leader in online sex trafficking. They are involved in nearly 75 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives from the public. So 75 percent of the reports that this great organization receives to try to stop sex trafficking relate to this one site.

“The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations here in the Senate, which I chair, conducted an 18-month investigation into this issue. We looked at what the online presence was, why it was happening. We learned, of course, that Backpage.com was by far the biggest problem. We found that Backpage not only had the vast majority of the sex trafficking on that site, but they knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking and covered up these crimes in order to increase their own profits.

“And for years, unbelievably, we’ve allowed them to get away with it. I think it’s a stain on our national character. I think we need to address it particularly because we have the opportunity here in the United States Senate to change a federal law to help stop this.

“Courts have consistently ruled that Backpage.com and these other websites are protected by a federal law, a law that we passed over two decades ago called the Communications Decency Act that protects websites from liability for crimes users commit through their site—no matter how complicit they are in those crimes. It was certainly not the intent of Congress to permit this, but that’s how the courts have interpreted it.

“Prosecutors in courts from across the country, including 50 states attorneys general, have called on Congress to fix this injustice. In one of the most direct calls that I’ve seen, a Sacramento judge last year dropped pimping charges against Backpage.com, 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.’

“In other words, this judge is saying there is now an immunity, a protection under federal law, that allows these people, even when they are knowingly involved with sex trafficking, to continue to do what they’re doing. So our legislation makes two very simple changes to the federal law that protects websites like Backpage in an effort to help restore justice.

“First, SESTA says if you’re violating a federal law, a federal law on trafficking, and that’s a law that was in existence long before we started this investigation, a law that’s well established, if you’re violating that federal law on trafficking, assisting, supporting, or facilitating sex trafficking and doing it knowingly, you can be held liable and held to account. Again, this is very narrowly-targeted legislation to deal with this specific problem.

“Second, the legislation will allow state attorneys general, who can’t now, to be able to prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws. That’s where you’re going to see most of the action—at the state level—with the state prosecutors. We’ve tailored this legislation narrowly to ensure no threat to the freedom of the internet but to ensure we’re getting at this problem and actually dealing with this immunity in federal law.

“Sex trafficking survivors, families, and advocates have shown great courage by their stories at the hands of online sex traffickers as we work with them. In testimony before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and in testimony before the Commerce Committee, which unanimously endorsed this legislation, we heard from victims, heard from their families, we heard from moms who told us about their teenage daughters having been trafficked online.

“One mom talked about her daughter at 14 being trafficked. She had been missing for 10 weeks. She finally found a photograph of her daughter on Backpage. She calls Backpage and says ‘I found my daughter. She’s on your website. Thank you for taking her off your website. She’s 14 years old.’ The person on the other end of the line said, from Backpage, ‘Did you pay for the ad?’ The mom said, ‘No, I didn’t pay for the ad. That’s my daughter.’ They said then we can’t take down the ad. These are who these people are.

“They have shown great courage by coming forward with their stories. Now it’s our turn to show courage by coming together and voting on this bill, sending it to the president’s desk and fixing this problem, fixing the federal law to allow justice for the trafficking victims and to hold accountable those who knowingly facilitate these crimes.

“We’ve got an opportunity to do something important here, to create a better, safer, and more just society. I’m hopeful next week we’ll have that legislation before this body, we’ll have the debate, we’ll pass the legislation and begin to provide these victims of trafficking for the justice they deserve—and most importantly, to stop women and children from being exploited online.”

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