WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), during Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month, said that now is the time for the Senate to vote on his bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), legislation that will help ensure justice for victims of sex trafficking and hold accountable websites such as Backpage.com that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. “Every day we don’t act, there are more women and more children who are being trafficked,” said Portman, who last week joined trafficking survivors and advocates to call on the Senate to pass SESTA.

Transcript can be found below and a video can be found here

January, this month, is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Last week was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. We had a lot of people here in town talking about that issue. I think everybody in this chamber would agree with me that we live in a great country and we are blessed to be Americans. In this age of rapid scientific, medical, and technological innovation, we have been able to change the world in positive ways, and that’s good. But something else is happening that is discouraging, and that is that in this country, in this century—the 21st century—we’re actually seeing an increase in a part of human trafficking that is heartbreaking, and this is sex trafficking that’s occurring in our country. Often it involves children underage who are being sold much like property. Experts tell us that this is happening, this increase, primarily for one reason and one reason alone, and that is because of the internet. It’s sort of the dark side of the internet. It’s a ruthlessly efficient way to conduct this business, this trafficking business. To me, this is a stain on our national character. It’s something we should all be involved with, Republican and Democrat alike, all of us as Americans, to say let’s push back, let’s not allow our country during this period of, again, so many positive technological changes to be able to use this technology—in this case, online websites selling people in a way that devastates these families and creates so many dislocations in our communities. 

“Traffickers are using the internet because of the fact that Congress, this body, the House and the Senate, passed legislation 21 years ago that they’re able to hide behind. They have an immunity under federal law. It’s called the Communications Decency Act. Ironically, it was actually put in place to be able to push back against child pornography—in other words, protect children from viewing pornography. And it’s being used now to say ’well, we don’t have responsibilities as websites even if we knowingly are selling children online.’ Can you imagine that? 

“Our legislation to deal with that is something we have been working on for a couple of years. We had a two-year investigation of this online trafficking, focused a lot on one website, an evil website that sells people online and knowingly has been providing ads out there for underage girls and boys: Backpage.com. As we looked into it and did more and more research, it became clear that even though they were doing this and even though there were people suing them because of it, none of the lawsuits were successful, whether from prosecutors or from victims, whether criminal suits or civil suits because of this immunity that they were claiming under federal law. 

“We found out that Backpage.com, this one website, was responsible for about 75 percent of all child trafficking reports that the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was receiving. In other words, the great majority of this was going on on this one website. We also found out that there has been a dramatic increase again in trafficking because of this online ruthless efficiency. When we got through our investigation, we also found out that this website actually knew that some of these ads were related to children and yet published them anyway. They went so far as to try to, as they called, ‘clean the ads’ for illegal transactions. So someone would place an ad, pay for the ad, and then Backpage would say ‘well, you need to change this ad a little bit because you’re using words like schoolgirl or cheerleader, which indicates they are underage.’ In other words, they knew these kids were underage, and yet they edited the ads and placed the ads anyway and took the profit. That’s what we’re up against. 

“The cost to these families, the human suffering that results from this, is incalculable. I have met with victims all around the state of Ohio and some from other states who have come here as they did last week for this rally. Can you imagine being in that situation as a parent? Kubiiki Pride, who was here last week, had her 13-year-old daughter go missing. You know, she was a teenager. Her mom was just stricken with grief and concern over her. Ten weeks, couldn’t find her anywhere. Finally somebody said you ought to look on this website called Backpage because they are selling girls online. God forbid, they were right. And she found her daughter. She found a photograph of her daughter, several photographs. Not photographs she wanted to see, but on the other hand there was her daughter alive. She said ‘my first reaction was just relief that she was alive. And then of course I called Backpage and I said I found my daughter. She is on your site. She is 13 years old. Can you please take her ad down?’ Backpage said ‘did you pay for the ad?’ She said ‘well, no, I didn’t pay for the ad. That’s my daughter. She is 13 years old.’ They said ‘no, we can’t take down the ad. You didn’t pay for it.’ Can you imagine? Now, she eventually was reunited with her daughter and there is a film called ‘I Am Jane Doe’ where she along with other women and mothers and young women are featured. You can see more about her story, what a brave woman she is because she is now standing up to it. 

“She filed a lawsuit but the lawsuit was not successful because the judge said there is this immunity. And by the way, the courts that have ruled that these websites are protected by this federal law have said that Congress ought to do something about that. Most recently, last August, a Sacramento judge dropped charges against Backpage stating, ‘if and until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230’—which is the section of the Communications Decency Act—’even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.’ Now, to me, that’s an invitation for Congress to act, saying we get it. They are exploiting human beings online, but this federal law gives them this immunity. 

“This immunity was put in place, you know, in an effort 21 years ago to try to ensure we could have a free internet, and that’s very important, but it was never intended to provide an immunity to illegal activity like this. Certainly not to keep people in the business of sex trafficking. That injustice is why we introduced our legislation. It’s called the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA. I introduced it with Senators Blumenthal, McCain, McCaskill, Cornyn, Heitkamp and others, and Senators Thune and Nelson took this bill through the Commerce Committee late last year. By the way, we had a spirited debate in that committee and it ended up coming out of the committee with a unanimous vote. Why? Because after hearing from the victims, after hearing from the experts on both sides, senators said, ‘whoa, this doesn’t make any sense, and it’s our responsibility as senators to change this law.’ 

“It provides justice for victims of online sex trafficking because they’ll have the opportunity to sue—hold these websites accountable that knowingly facilitate crimes. It also helps in terms of prosecutions because the state prosecutor is now the AGs, the local prosecutors at the state level will be able to have access now to the courts to be able to take on these websites and again hold them accountable. The prosecutions again have been thwarted because of this immunity. 

“These are very narrow changes. They don’t affect the freedom of the internet at all. In fact, I would argue it helps to ensure a free internet to take care of these bad actors. And by holding these folks accountable, it’s going to provide the justice that the victims deserve. It’s a fair commonsense approach and again that’s why it has support of not just of the members I mentioned but actually now 66 or 67 members of the United States Senate. Again, that’s out of a hundred members. That’s a rare thing to have that kind of support. It has the majority of the Republicans on board. It has the majority of the Democrats on board. It’s a fair, commonsense approach that’s going to make a real difference in the lives of the people we represent and be effective at curbing this increase in trafficking we see online. 

“Every day we don’t act, there are more women and more children who are being trafficked unnecessarily. It also has the support of an extraordinary coalition of law enforcement, organizations, anti-trafficking advocates, survivors, faith-based groups, civil rights community, major businesses, even some members of the tech community that initially pushed back against this legislation. Looking at it, I think many of them realized this is not a defensible position to say that we shouldn’t amend this federal law that’s providing this immunity to these bad actors. 

“These members of the United States Senate who have cosponsored, including colleagues of mine who are in the Senate chamber this afternoon, are saying ‘I want to be part of the solution.’ They’re showing some courage. I appreciate that. But the people who are really showing courage are these survivors and these children and these women who have been trafficked and they need our help. We need 60 votes to pass most things around here, and in this case, we will have some objections apparently and so having 66 or 67 supporters of this legislation is a key number. It enables us to ensure that we can get this on to the floor and passed on the floor. 

“So why are we waiting? We shouldn’t wait. We should move this month, during Human Trafficking Awareness Month. We should move because it’s the right thing to do for these victims, those who might be victims between now and when we act. It’s the right thing to do because it will create a safer and a better and a more just society and elected officials like us are elected to do just that. Again, there were hundreds of sex trafficking survivors on Capitol Hill last week, and I met with them. And the stories will break your heart. Some were the parents. Some were trafficking victims themselves. They have shown great courage by sharing their stories, bringing their tragedy public, and now we owe them the opportunity to get this legislation passed to ensure that we can protect some of the most vulnerable among us.”

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