Last week, President Donald Trump signed the most comprehensive online anti-sex trafficking and child pornography legislation to date. It is not a panacea to end human trafficking and child sex exploitation. By no means is the legislation flawless. However, it is the first step in a long process of creating preemptive laws that protect victims of trafficking online. The new bill goes into effect immediately and bars website advertisers from selling sex services of children and adults under their classified ads space.
The legislation was signed as a result of two bipartisan bills, Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) which passed houses of Congress. SESTA, the Senate bill, passed in early April, is the first of its kind. SESTA helps put a stop to the sexual exploitation of adults online and the selling of children for sex online. The new law raises several challenges, not the least of which is that technology companies fear the new legislation could signal efforts to tighten regulation on the industry.
No doubt, this legislation will impact the Department of Justice (DOJ) in its quest to end human trafficking and to prosecute traffickers and transnational criminal organizations which use the internet to sell victims. For example, will DOJ have the resources to manage the volume of cases in the coming months that will be filed by human trafficking victims — minors and adults — who have been exploited for sex and sold online against their will?
There are many other questions.
Where will adult sex workers currently promoting their services on Backpage.com, Craigslist, Facebook, MySpace and other sites, sell their sex services? Are the adult sex workers to return to the streets to sell their services? Lastly, how will transnational criminal organizations respond to this legislation? What will be the extent of the backlash when these hugely powerful and profitable cartels realize their “products and supply” are no longer available for distribution in the world’s most efficient and cost effective global market?
Three sides to this argument not necessarily compatible also deserve space.
First, from the adult sex worker’s perspective, some fear that men and women sex workers will have to return to the streets to continue to make a living. Some sex workers fear they will have to rely on pimps and escort services who take a large percentage of their profits. Since pimps and escort services are not the most honorable of “bosses,” and are more likely than not violent sometimes drug pushers and exploiters, will they be taking greater personal risks?
Secondly, there are online advertisers which continue to claim that, under the First Amendment, the legislation is a violation of their rights. For this argument to stick technology companies need to have a deeper understanding of The Decency Act of 1996 and what constitutes First Amendment privileges versus online criminal activity and indecency. There should be a wider debate irrespective of how polarizing and emotionally charged it will become. The Decency Act was the first attempt by Congress to regulate pornographic material online. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court struck the anti-indecency provision in Reno v. ACLU.
Lastly, attorneys who represent minor victims of human trafficking are concerned about the emotional and personal cost and safety of the child if they are forced to identify and prosecute online traffickers.
To tackle websites involvement in criminal activities a broader and more thorough legislation is needed. In the meantime, to ensure that website advertisers are held accountable several current pieces of legislation such as the FOSTA bill could be strengthened. It is not just adult prostitution and the ability to pay and hire sex services online that is at stake, it is the selling of minors for sex, the trafficking of minors and child pornography by online advertisers such as Backpage.com.
Education seems to be the only long term solution. Continuing to educate law enforcement, government officials, Civil society, academia, parents and students about human trafficking is a requirement. Communities no longer have the option to remain ignorant. The rising demand for child pornography and trade in sexually exploited children has forced the hand for law enforcement. It is imperative for all school age children and teachers to learn how to identify the signs to stop human trafficking.
The subject of human trafficking should be mandatory at every elementary school, college and university. It should also be front and center during PTA meetings, and at every think tank in Washington D.C., New York, and across the country. Just as important, Americans need a clear definition of human trafficking. The features that constitute slavery, decency and a moral compass are imperative to the national dialogue.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.