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Senators Target Websites that Sell Sex with Minors

2017-8-6

In 1996, the United States Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA) to protect minors from pornography over the internet. The law also protects website owners from being held responsible for users’ opinions or comments on their pages.

In 2016, two women brought a lawsuit against the website backpage.com. They said that as teenagers they were bought and sold for sex on backpage.com.

In the lawsuit, one of the women said her pimp chose to run ads on backpage because he said they “could avoid getting caught.”

“He also told her backpage.com would ‘make him the most money,’” the lawsuit said.

The federal court in Massachusetts said that the website backpage.com had made “sex trafficking easier.” But the court also said the Communications Decency Act prevented the court from taking the sex ads down from the website.

U.S. Congress to act

Now, 25 senators and over 100 members of the House of Representatives are proposing to change that law.

Senator Rob Portman is a Republican from Ohio and the lead sponsor of the bill. He said it was never the intention of the CDA to allow websites to run advertisements for sex with underage children.

“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 is being sold for sex. That may sound like a horror movie to you, but it is very real,” Portman said.

Senator Rob Portman heads to the Capitol last month for a vote.
Senator Rob Portman heads to the Capitol last month for a vote.

Portman said the court in Massachusetts found Backpage had acted “immorally.” But the court decided it could not stop the website from running sex ads unless Congress changed the 1996 law.

“That is who we are,” Portman said. “We are the legislators. The court of appeals said: Congress, do your job.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp is a Democrat from North Dakota and a co-sponsor of Portman’s bill. She said she finds it “disgusting” that a law passed by Congress is being used to protect human trafficking.

Portman and other sponsors of the bill are hoping a recent movie, “I Am Jane Doe,” will bring more information about the issue of human trafficking to the public.

It tells the stories of young women victimized by human trafficking and their efforts, along with their parents, to stop websites from advertising sex with underage children.

Backpage did not comment on the new Senate bill.

But in a court document last month, backpage asked another federal court to stop an investigation of its advertising by Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

It said Hawley should know courts have blocked every effort “to shutdown websites.” The company’s lawyers also said the company works with law enforcement when requested to help investigations into sex trafficking. If it is stopped from running such ads, others would step in and not act as responsibly as backpage, the company said.

Hawley said his investigation would continue. He said it is clear backpage knows traffickers are using its website to sell sex with underage children. And backpage wants to keep making money from sex trafficking, Hawley said.

A 2017 U.S. Senate report said backpage “reportedly receives 80 percent of its money from sex advertising in the United States.

Industry group has problems with bill

Michael Beckerman is president of the Internet Association. The association represents large internet companies, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter.

Beckerman said association members regularly work with law enforcement to stop sex trafficking. But he said the new Senate bill goes too far.

It will lead to unfair actions against internet companies and will not help the fight to stop human trafficking, Beckerman said.

Portman said such criticism is “false.”

The new bill would only take away protection from material on websites that assist or support people violating federal sex trafficking laws, Portman said.

He said the bill protects internet freedom. What it will do, Portman said, is help children victimized by sex trafficking.

A report last month by the State Department said holding human traffickers responsible for their actions is difficult. It said that there were fewer than 10,000 convictions for trafficking worldwide in 2016.

But it noted “estimates of the number of victims of human trafficking remain in the tens of millions.”

I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section and share your views on 51VOA.COM. Do you know any victims of human trafficking? What help do you believe governments and people can do to help them?

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Words in This Story

pornography - n. movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement

pimp - n. a person who makes money illegally by getting customers for prostitutes

sex trafficking - n. is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force or fraud to get people to work in the sex trade

sponsor - n. a person who is the lead backer of a bill in a legislature

advertisement - n. something such as a short film or a written notice that is presented to help sell a product or service

disgusting - adj. to find something very upsetting

conviction - n. finding someone guilty of a crime