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Advocates Concerned Over Online Sex Trafficking Bill

If signed by the President, the new law would change the Communications Act and make websites owners liable for sex trafficking content posted on their site.

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    Advocates Concerned Over Online Sex Trafficking Bill

    If passed the law would make websites liable for content. NBC 7 Investigates' Mari Payton reports.

    (Published Monday, April 9, 2018)

    “During his search, he came upon a picture of my 16-year-old daughter under the posting ‘New Girl in Town, Looking to Have Fun’ which was posted by her pimp,” Yvonne Ambrose fought back tears when as she testified on a Senate Committee last September, “This was the last night of my daughter’s life.” 

    Ambrose told Senators about her daughter Desiree and her fight against the website where her daughter’s photo was posted, Backpage.com 

    “[Communication Act] Section 230 is standing in the way of justice for my child and other Jane Does out there like her,” Ambrose said. 

    Communication Act Section 230 states websites may not be liable for the content posted on their sites. The “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” would change this, now making websites take responsibility if sex trafficking or prostitution is happening on their sites.

    Lawmakers passed the law with overwhelming support. Last month, President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump tweeted about the law, “...will bring us one-stop closer to ending sex trafficking online.” 

    Advocates tell NBC 7 Investigates websites like Craigslist, Reddit and Backpage have been used for years by traffickers and pimps to connect buyers to women or underage children in San Diego. 

    Holding owners “responsible” for the sex trafficking on their website is not necessarily a “cure-all for the problem”, according to local advocates. 

    “Obviously there are places out there that will cater to this,” Marisa Ugarte said. 

    Ugarte is the Executive Director for the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a San Diego nonprofit that advocates for exploited men, women and children. Ugarte and other critics tell NBC 7 Investigates the new law will make it harder for advocates and law enforcement to track trafficking activity by driving the business further underground. She describes it as being like whack-a-mole. You knock some out and others pop up to take their place 

    “The way Congress has attempted to address this problem is the exact wrong way,” said Elliot Harmon with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

    Harmon said the law puts an unfair burden on website owners who might not even know their sites are being used for trafficking. 

    In addition to lawmakers, 49 state Attorney General’s voiced their support of the measure, saying in a letter to Senators, “…state and local law enforcement must have the clear authority to investigate and prosecute facilitators of these and other horrible crimes."

    “Nothing in this bill will actually punish sex traffickers,” Harmon said, “What will happen instead is innocent people will be silenced online.” 

    Supporters of the new law insist if passed, this would be a victory for trafficking survivors and a victory in the fight to stop the selling of women and children online.