Senate Sex Trafficking Bill Criminalizes Online Publishers and Creates State-Accessible Sex Worker Registries

Sen. Mark Kirk/FacebookSen. Mark Kirk/FacebookLast week, Senators  Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill aimed at cracking down on child sex trafficking that could ultimately harm web publishers, adult entertainers, and free speech. The bill sets up onerous and invasive new registry requirements for those who post and host adult service advertisements. And it holds online publishers criminally liable not only for illegal activity facilitated though their ad sections but also for failing to keep—and make available to attorneys general—proper records on all adults advertising legal or illegal erotic services. 

The "Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act"—crafted after a related bill that passed the House in May—makes it a federal crime for any content platform to host an advertisement that "facilitates or is designed to facilitate" sex acts with anyone under 18 years old. At first blush, that may sound unobjectionable: Of course it should be a crime to sell minors for sex. But, of course, that already is a crime. This bil is about holding web platforms (like Craigslist) criminally liable for anything that criminals may post to them. 

"This is a major liability risk for operators of user-generated content platforms, who host high volumes of content and have little to no control over what users decide to upload," notes Emma Llansó at the Center for Democracy and Technology. With penalties including up 10 years in prison on the line, sites might decide just to prohibit ads of a sexual nature—including personals, where many sexual services ads end up running—altogether. 

The SAVE Act would also require all sites that host adult advertising (whether paid or free/user-generated) to review ads before publication, request a valid telephone number and credit card number from each poster, "prohibit the use of euphemism and codewords" in ads, and prohibit the use of prepaid debit cards or cryptocurrencies in placing paid ads. For sites that run paid adult advertisements, publishers would be responsible for verifying the identity of every person who placed an adult ad by obtaining a copy of a government-issued ID containing their name, photo, and date of birth. The publisher would have to hold on to these records for seven years and make them "available to the (U.S.) Attorney General, any designee of the Attorney General, the attorney general of a State, and any designee of the attorney general of a State for inspection at all reasonable times."

The bill insists that information won't be used against registrants in criminal proceedings unrelated to sex trafficking. But knowing how fond government and law enforcement officials are of privacy and keeping promises, you can see why those advertising adult services—many of which are for perfectly legal activities, such as phone sex lines, dominatrix services, and stripping; many of which aren't—may be reluctant to hand over such information.

"An online identity verification requirement would unquestionably have a chilling effect on adults’ willingness to engage in communications about lawful goods and services and would be a significant intrusion into their right to privacy," writes Llansó. 

Similar identification requirements in the Child Online Protection Act led to that law being struck down due, in part, to the burden these requirements place on speakers, listeners, and hosts of protected speech. 

Illegal immigrants and others without government issued IDs would be barred from legal advertising online, leaving them to rely on more dangerous methods of finding clients. Those running organized, professional sex trafficking organizations, however, are probably savvy enough to get and submit decent fake IDs (or simply turn to more underground methods of advertising online themselves).  

As adult workers shy away from placing ads, online publishers will lose money on one of the last classified sections that's been making any money. Meanwhile, they'll face a minimum fine of $250,000 for improper record-keeping and jail time if anything illegal slips through. Ultimately nobody wins—except the politicians who appear to be getting tough on the child sex trafficking "epidemic". On his Facebook page June 30, Sen. Kirk posted

Every year, 100,000 children are at risk of being trafficked against their will in the United States. Learn more to help: http://kirk.senate.gov/notforsale #NotForSale

There's not any way to refute Kirk's "100,000 children" claim, because Kirk doesn't define what "at risk of" means. Theoretically, all children in the United States are at risk of being trafficked. Theoretically, I'm at risk of drowning in a bucket or getting eaten by a cannibal.

None of these things, however, are terribly likely to happen. Or even marginally likely to happen. The likelihood of a U.S. child being kidnapped by a stranger for any reason is incredibly small (about 100 children each year, or 3 percent of all kidnapping cases).  

But Sen. Kirk's website is full of dubious numbers and scary sounding pronouncements. "Backpage.com sells modern day slavery," it proclaims. In one press release, Kirk insists that 100 percent of "dates" set up through Backpage.com are for prostitution, "often child prostitution." The site intersperses videos of sad-eyed children and forlorn teen girls with statistics about adult prostitution and adult advertisements in general. And though he touts the SAVE Act as a way to fight child sex slavery, he mentions nothing about who the bill actually targets or how it actually works.  

For a more detailed look at the SAVE Act's flaws, check out this analysis from The Center for Democracy and Technology. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a thorough takedown of the House version of this legislation. "Lawmaking is messy stuff, and mistakes like this happen," the ACLU offered charitably. "Working to combat coerced or underage prostitution is incredibly important; however, legislation must be carefully drafted to be sure to protect our free speech rights online." 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Why does Elizabeth Nolan Brown hate the children?

  • Normajeana||

    Perhaps you are unaware of the government funded study entitled 2001 Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the US, Canada and Mexico, which points out that 96% of all child sexual exploitation comes from predators whom the child knows and trusts! such as cops, who have a long and lurid history with raping minors and getting probation. The study, which is frequently quoted but out of context, is where the prostitution abolitionists claim that the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14.... which still isn't true, but the study was of persons under 18 and no one OVER 18 was part of this study, can be found here: http://www.sp2.upenn.edu/reste.....20220.pdf. And the pedophile cops, who far outnumber the men who seek to BUY the services of minors online, can be found by going to www.policeprostitutionandpolitics.com and selecting the articles about pedophile cops, judges, DAs, who can't keep their hands off minors.

    The idea that we would send these predators - who also have a thing about raping prostitutes - out to rescue minors is like asking Jerry Sandusky to rescue altar boys from pedophile priests. So, who hates children? Sounds like you and the abolitionists do. Unless you are being sarcastic.

  • MegaloMonocle||

    an advertisement that "facilitates or is designed to facilitate" sex acts with anyone under 18 years old

    I have absolutely no clue what this means. "Facilitates" sweeps very broadly. "designed to facilitate" may be narrower, but is actually worse, as it catches ads that in no way actually facilitated anything illegal.

    Naturally, this bill is grossly, facially unconstitutional. But under the Extra Special SCOTUS Constitution, it will pass muster under either the Secret "Commercial Speech" Exception or the Invisible "For the Children" Exception.

  • John||

    I don't look at the hooker ads on Craig's list. So, if I am wrong, someone please correct me. I don't see any way in hell there are ads on the internet for underage hookers. Everyone knows that is a crime and about the worst crime there is short of murder. No fucking way are people openly advertising under age hookers online. Sure, such hookers exist. But they are not putting their ads online. So exactly what does this law accomplish?

  • SugarFree||

    It makes the online advertising of anything that even looks like a sex service into a risk too great for most websites to bear. And that's the point.

    They couldn't get away with an outright ban, so they make the punishment so great and the ways to incur it so vague, no one will stay in the business.

  • John||

    So they drive hookers back out on the street, which lowers the quality of life for other people in their neighborhoods and makes being a hooker much more dangerous.

    And yes, the point is to hold an online advertiser responsible if any person who advertises on them at anytime turns out to be underage. They want to effectively ban the ads but can't directly do it. God I hate these people.

  • kinnath||

    you don't need to ban what you can regulate out of existence.

  • From the Tundra||

    So exactly what does this law accomplish?

    Off the top of my head? Prosecutors with a whole new bunch of resume padding bullshit, SWAT teams deployed more and a bunch of dead puppies.

    And the kids will be less safe.

  • Normajeana||

    Indeed they will be less safe. Anytime you put minors or prostitutes near cops, bad things happen: http://www.policeprostitutiona.....&Itemid=50

  • Normajeana||

    And this (rapists cops of prostitutes)

    http://www.policeprostitutiona.....murder.pdf

  • ||

    There isn't really a CL hooker ads section. They're just sort of buried in the various personals ads, usually Casual Encounters.

    Fun With Jasmine - w4m - 20 (west la)

    Still looking for a guy to give sweet compassion and show a good time to. I will not respond to emails or explicit text, and you must be serious about meeting please don't waste my time ....I respond to text faster [phone number]..roses needed.I posted a pic so please don't ask

    This one is delightfully old school since fewer folks use "roses" as a code word for cash anymore.

  • ||

    Hmm, a broken tag in my last post seems to have messed up the format of the rest of the page...

  • Florida Man||

    Think of the power Jesse. You now control all teh tagz. Please use your gift responsible.

  • ||

    Yes. If only I knew exactly what broke the tags. I will fiddle. I apologize for future inane test posts.

  • ||

    I think it was because of a unicode character right after the open bold tag.

  • ||

    It drops all text after this character. Which looks like a dollar bill. Still testing even though it doesn't look like it.

  • From the Tundra||

    It's ok. It gives our lame comments a certain majesty.

  • SugarFree||

    I just read them in this really deep voice.

  • Brandon||

    I read them in Morgan Freeman's voice.

  • Rhywun||

    "BEHOLD!" Neat.

  • ||

    We may want to just consider abandoning ship at this point. Stupid CL Hookers with their dollar bill emojis.

  • Florida Man||

    Hookers and children first!

  • Rich||

    a bill aimed at cracking down on child sex trafficking

    All right, you've your fun at the President's expense.

    Enough with the "crack" snark.

  • ||

    (SAVE Act)

    Goddamn acronyms.

  • John||

    People said that if I voted for Romney the Feds would be creating registries and tracking prostitutes so they could be jailed. And they were right.

    The problem with prostitution is that when practiced on the streets it becomes a real quality of life issue. If you have ever been a neighborhood with street walkers, you know what I am talking about. The internet really put an end to a lot of that by giving prostitutes a way to solicit clients from their homes. Also, the internet leaves a trail. If a client murders or harms a prostitute, it is real easy for the cops to find the perpetrator if he answered an online ad. The sicko that was killing women by answering Craig's list ads didn't stay on the lose very long. In contrast, the Green River killer murdered street walkers for over a decade without being caught. This bill makes things much worse for prostitutes and everyone else.

  • Florida Man||

    This bill makes things much worse for prostitutes...

    But they're already dead on the inside so it doesn't count when you kill them!

  • John||

    The actual people involved here don't really even exist in the mind of someone like Pelosi. Pelosi is so narcissistic and evil she doesn't view anyone else as a human being. Everyone is just a prop in her own little morality play. Whether this act helps or hurts people doesn't even occur to Pelosi. What matters is that supporting it makes her feel good. That is all that matters.

  • Florida Man||

    That is politicians in general. We are all little cogs to be plugged into their grand machine that serves them. I would love a politician to run an honest campaign and tell the American people "Government can't solve all your problems, so I will get government out of your way so you can." It will never happen but a man can dream.
    /wishes for fing-longer

  • PapayaSF||

    Finally, some bipartisanship in Washington! It's wonderful to see both parties coming together for economically burdensome and ultimately useless moral grandstanding.

  • PD Scott||

    I thought "economically burdensome and ultimately useless moral grandstanding" was the definition of bipartisanship.

  • Rich||

    There's not any way to refute Kirk's "100,000 children" claim, because Kirk doesn't define what "at risk of" means. Theoretically, all children in the United States are at risk of being trafficked.

    Moreover, I understand the PC term is "children at *hope*".

  • Rhywun||

    "children at hope"

    It's fun to watch the emergence of Newspeak, one phrase at a time.

  • Notorious G.K.C.||

    "Stop Advertising *Victis*"

    As in "vae victis?"

  • Bardas Phocas||

    ...and the lamentations of their women.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Didn't Welch fire a certain redhead writer for this sort of thing?

  • From the Tundra||

    Don't!!

  • Rich||

    "An online identity verification requirement ... would be a significant intrusion into their right to privacy," writes Llansó.

    WDATPDIM?

  • From the Tundra||

    Hey, FedGov, if you are really concerned about the children:

    http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2014/0.....ss-border/

    What the fuck is going on down there? I believe that John referenced an anti-trafficking law that prompted some of this, but it's getting a little out of control.

  • John||

    It is. And it is going to get worse. The anti trafficking law prevents the government from doing expedited removal of any minor not from Mexico or Canada. Since there is a huge backlog in immigration courts and we don't want to keep minors in custody, this has effectively meant turning over minors to their families. Well, even when you do try to remove them, how the hell are you going to make a minor show up in court. So that law has essentially made the federal government a final destination deliver service for the Mexican mafia. All the mafia has to do is get the kid to the boarder and we will do the rest. Unsurprisingly, anyone who has a kid and any family living in the US is paying the $3,000 or $4,000 smuggling fee to the Mexican mafia and sending their kids here knowing they will likely never be returned.

    It is all the predictable but unintended consequences of a feel good law Congress passed. Unless we change the law and start sending these kids back we can either turn them over to their families ensuring the flow of incoming kids just gets larger or keep them in custody and have the feds and FEMA be responsible for the care and feeding of tens of thousands of kids. Good luck with that.

  • MegaloMonocle||

    It is all the predictable but unintended consequences of a feel good law Congress passed.

    I don't give a fuck what fools they are, or what their feelz were, when they passed a law.

    I care about the obvious and foreseeable consequences of what they did.

    Don't give them a pass.

  • Rasilio||

    So, the Republican alliance is fracturing and the GOP is in the midst of the early stages of a civil war. If it shatters that will cause a reshuffling of the American political landscape so here is a terrifying thought for you.

    The Religious Right teams up with progressive Feminists as the center piece of a new party. I mean they already agree with each other on so many subjects.

  • antisocial-ist||

    That would never happen. If for no other reason than abortion.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    And it holds online publishers criminally liable not only for illegal activity facilitated though their ad sections but also for failing to keep—and make available to attorneys general—proper records on all adults advertising legal or illegal erotic services.

    ...The publisher would have to hold on to these records for seven years and make them "available to the (U.S.) Attorney General, any designee of the Attorney General, the attorney general of a State, and any designee of the attorney general of a State for inspection at all reasonable times."

    Fuck the Fourth Amendment! It's for the freaking children!

    Every year, 100,000 children are at risk...

    A quick search of Google tells me that 100,000 children are also at risk...

    in Basra
    of going hungry in Eastern Massachusetts
    for polio in Deir al-Zor
    of not getting the nutrition they need to live normal healthy lives
    on the streets of the UK every day
    of measles
    of abuse in the UK's Islamic seminaries
    for a delayed diagnosis of hyperbilirubinemia and subsequent kernicterus

    And that's why I don't hang around 100,000 children. Bad things happen when 100,000 children are anywhere.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement