MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

They Won't Stop at Backpage

The "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" would not stop sexual exploitation. But it could blow up the legal framework that supports the internet as we know it.

Album / Fine Art Images/NewscomAlbum / Fine Art Images/NewscomSome bipartisan busybodies in the Senate are pushing a bill they claim will take aim at sex trafficking—but as usual, their lofty claims don't square with reality. The "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" would do nothing to actually stop sexual exploitation, but it will lay waste to the legal framework that supports the internet as we know it.

The bill (S. 1693) would amend the Communications Decency Act "to clarify that section 230 of that Act does not prohibit the enforcement against providers and users of interactive computer services" of any federal or state laws—criminal or civil— "relating to sex trafficking."

So far, the measure has attracted more than two dozen co-sponsors, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), John McCain (Arizona), and Marco Rubio (Florida) and Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) and Claire McCaskill (Missouri). But it has also earned ample opposition from tech companies, constitutional wonks, web publishing platforms, and sex workers, as I explain in a recent piece at The Daily Beast:

Why? According to the '80s anti-pornography crusaders at Morality In Media—recently rechristened the National Center on Sexual Exploitation—it's because Google "supports sex traffickers," as does anyone else opposing the legislation.

Of course no one—not me, nor Google (which contributes to and partakes in a slew of anti-trafficking initiatives), nor The Internet Association (a trade group that includes members such as Twitter, Microsoft, AirBNB, Amazon, Yelp, Reddit, and Snapchat), nor the myriad think tanks, lawyers, and tech writers opposed to the bill—is arguing in favor of forced or underage prostitution. No one is arguing that companies have a right to knowingly profit off of sexual exploitation, nor that free speech includes a right to advertise sex trafficking.

But we already have a host of remedies (criminal and civil) for punishing such activities. Federal law already bans sex trafficking, conspiracies to commit sex trafficking, and knowingly facilitating it in any way.

"The problem today is not a lack of legal remedies but under-enforcement (or slow enforcement) by the U.S. Justice Department," suggested a group of tech scholars this week in a letter to senators. And under-enforcement is a problem the new bill would do nothing to address. Instead, it would actually "discourage online platform operators from policing their sites," by making doing so increase the likelihood of liability, "and generally undermine America's uniquely innovative online ecosystem."

The new measure covers much of the same ground as legislation that attracted 98 co-sponsors earlier this year. (Law professor Eric Goldman: "it's pretty clear Congress is on the cusp of gutting Section 230.") It's being sold as a way to hold the classified ad site Backpage "accountable" for its supposed role in facilitating sex trafficking.

But as I explain at the Beast, "the underlying reason why no one's been able to pin criminal charges on Backpage isn't a 'loophole' in federal law that lets Backpage knowingly profit from human trafficking but the fact that the evidence doesn't support claims that it does so." And while politicians and activists say that a sex-trafficking exception to Section 230 is a narrowly crafted solution, this falls apart in the face of the way U.S. sex trafficking laws are enforced in practice.

Authorities already go after all sorts of consensual adult activity...under the guise of stopping sex trafficking. And Backpage is far from the only site where this sort of activity is advertised and negotiated. As it stands, cops are already chasing down prostitution and sex trafficking cases that originate on Facebook, Snapchat, random dating apps, and more.

As web-policy folks note, the new law would mean "online platforms could be accused of participating in sex trafficking that occurs through ordinary, non-advertising use of their sites," such as when two people arrange to meet through Facebook messenger.

With broader power to target web platforms, the financial incentives for abuse would be huge. Most of the people prosecuted for trafficking-related crimes are small-time pimps or sex workers themselves, working in a small-scale and relatively low-end manner. Their pockets are not deep. But Backpage? Facebook? Google? There's money there, for cops with civil asset forfeiture dreams and civil-lawsuit payouts....

It seems folks like Portman and Cruz won't rest until sex workers—and sex trafficking victims—are forced back out onto the streets and the social web as we know it is destroyed. But the only thing this grandstanding gesture might help is their political careers. Victims of sexual exploitation won't be one iota safer when lawmakers shut down Backpage. And they won't stop at Backpage.

Read the whole thing here.

Photo Credit: Album / Fine Art Images/Newscom

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.

  • damikesc||

    If they have any proof that there is real-life trafficking going on...wouldn't Back Page HELP with an investigation in the first place?

    I'm opposed to the concept of somebody selling a product or service being liable if it the product or service is used illegally. It's as asinine as holding phone companies liable if somebody sells drugs using phones.

    ...which will give the government their next "great idea"

  • Longtobefree||

    Not to mention holding car companies liable if a car is used to facilitate drunk driving..
    Oh, wait. We already do this with guns. Why not the web?

    This bill is merely a reasonable expansion of Title IX from college campuses to the rest of the US. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    If they have any proof that there is real-life trafficking going on...wouldn't Back Page HELP with an investigation in the first place?

    They do.

  • Brandybuck||

    "Sex trafficking" is the new euphemism for prostitution. And the Democrats love it because the can get on the bandwagon too without seeming like they're prudes. "It's for the chil'ren!"

  • Incredulous||

    Yeah, that's exactly right. The new morality police have expanded the definition of sex trafficking to include all manner of voluntary sex work. That's really what the attack on backpage was about - not actual sex trafficking. Of course, this violates basic individual rights and freedoms while also damaging all involved. It drives the industry underground thereby making it unsafe in many ways.

    When taken together with the campus crusade to redefine consensual sexual activity as rape (when explicit verbal consent is lacking, alcohol is involved or later female regret occurs), there seems to be a disturbing puritanical wave sweeping the country. You could also add in the apparent war on any and all teen sexuality. We're both hypersexualized and besieged by puritanical nazis at the same time.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's an inherently moral outrage. It will always be that, and they will continue to dress it up however they can to continue that outrage.

  • CE||

    Prison industrial police complex needs a new crime if peddling herbs is gonna be legal in most states.
    Too bad they didn't add an "i" for "Internet" between "Stop" and "Enabling" though....
    It could have been the SIESTA act.

  • juris imprudent||

    How did they miss mentioning the Internet in the title of the bill? Then the acronym could be SIESTA!

  • Rhywun||

    They're saving that one for building the Wall.

  • Dan S.||

    I was thinking that, since the "X" in the word "sex" is what somehow draws the eye, and not the "s", the acronym becomes the SEXT act. That's not quite what this law is about? Doesn't matter.

  • ||

    Stop Trafficking, Adultery, and Sex Industry Act

  • Brandybuck||

    STASIA???

    STAXIA???

    WTF???

  • pan fried wylie||

    Sex Trafficking/AdulTery Industry, Stoppage acT

  • Anomalous||

    Linda Stasi could not be reached for comment.

  • Longtobefree||

    Especially the children between 18 and 21 who want to make a few bucks to pay for health insurance.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    For a few decades, it was the general consensus that the 'White Slavery' panics that cycled through the late Victorian, Edwardian, and between-the-Wars periods were founded on the fears of Middle Class women that if men could buy sex they wouldn't tolerate the pushing around they were getting from their wives.

    I notice that this is being retconned to fit with current "Sex Trafficking" sensibilities....which seem to be founded on the fears of Feminist women that if men can buy sex, they won't put up with the pushing around......

    On that basis, let me be the first (outside the pages of erotic fiction) to come flat out and say that I am in favor of sex trafficking. In fact, if the way Western women have carried on for the last several decades is an example of what happens when they are treated as equals, I will call for universal female chattel slavery.

    Since it seems that the only way to get them to stop spouting statist bullshit is to insert a ball-gag.

  • damikesc||

    I anxiously await the anti-sex robot bills that will pass when those hit anything resembling a critical mass.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    It would be nice if there was someone around who was man enough to say "no".

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Say "no" to what? Feminist bushwa? Lots of them do. Anti-male bias in court? It's being pointed out and aren't the Feministsmhavinga cow over THAT. Rape? Very few men rape, no matter what one's Womyn's Studies Prof may claim. Sex in general? Sorry, not built that way. Take it up with the designer.

  • Paper Wasp||

    This.

    The shrillest screamers for MOAR LAWZ to prevent so-called "sex trafficking" are entitled, homely white feminist women who are terrified of a future in which men just don't even give them a second look, let alone a second car/bank account. The ones behind the campaigns to end "bikini baristas" or "massage parlors" are always triple-chinned suburban minivan moms spilling out over their typical uniform of stretch pants and giant T-shirts. They'll never admit it, but this isn't about "the children" at all, nor is it about "protecting" the sex workers themselves, either. It's about disgusting, loud, obnoxious feminist/western women being terrified that men have no reason to ever look at, fuck, or marry/bankroll them again, as long as there's a ready supply of attractive, young women coming in from other countries.

    It's just protectionism on another front.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Damn girl, trim those nails before rub on that!

  • Hugh Akston||

    Crusty knows that real love looks like the Weasels Ripped My Flesh cover.

  • chemjeff||

    Moral Panic Anxiety Status: Code Red! All Hands On Deck! We Must Legislate To Solve The Moral Panic Du Jour!

  • Billy Bones||

    So, we have a new bill designed to punish Backpage for doing what they were not doing. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Epstein and his numerous (politically connected) cohorts all walk free despite the exploits that took place on board "Lolita Express". Sounds about right.

  • Ken Hagler||

    "No one is arguing that companies have a right to knowingly profit off of sexual exploitation..."

    No one except all of Hollywood and much of the music industry.

  • ||

    I'm sure Planned Parenthood sticks their fingers in their ears whenever a minor tells them no lies.

  • AlmightyJB||

    The further you force it underground, the worse it gets.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It's very much like fisting.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    ENB already covered that with the headline.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    The true victims of this are us dudes who just want to pay people for weird sex acts in peace.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Mainstream weird, or reason commentariat weird?

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: They Won't Stop at Backpage
    The "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" would not stop sexual exploitation. But it could blow up the legal framework that supports the internet as we know it.

    You can't have a totalitarian socialist slave state without censorship.
    This is a good start for all the ruling elitist turds who want to enslave us for our own good.

  • Fuzzyedia||

    In this war on sex workers and their clients there appears to be a consistent, calculated choice to not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.

    I think prosecutor Val Richey popularized the underpinnings of this thinking best in his war on willing sex workers and their clients in King County, WA. The argument goes something like this:

    "We all know that women who choose sex work did so because they had no choice, but every man makes a choice. Let's not get into the weeds over which women do this willingly and which don't (even though separating the innocent from the guilty is precisely what a prosecutor is hired to do) let's just keep it simple presume clients are guilty of sexual abuse whether it was consensual or not."

    Same twisted logic from the politicians here. "Let's not get into the weeds over which companies are simply selling advertising space on the internet and which are actively trafficking and promoting child prostitution."

    If only we could somehow hold politicians and quasi-government officials to the same standard of presumed guilt.

  • raoulduke||

    I sent a letter my representatives asking them to oppose this stupidity. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a cool email tool that will look up you congressman and senators and allow you to email all three at the same time. You can check it out by googleing "Internet Censorship Bill Would Spell Disaster for Speech and Innovation"

  • Mark22||

    Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), John McCain (Arizona), and Marco Rubio (Florida) and Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) and Claire McCaskill (Missouri)

    A literal parade of horribles.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

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