Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in the far reaches of the world, as it’s just as extensive within the United States and Ohio. Then mix in internet ads that are thinly coded to resemble adult services make human trafficking rampant and unruly online, and difficult to fight.
But federal lawmakers and state officials are doing what they can to counter the nefarious trade.
The United States Senate, behind the efforts of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, recently earned a win in this battle against human trafficking — which leads to prostitution, drug abuse and slavery — as Washington, D.C., federal court Judge Rosemary Collyer ordered the internet classified company Backpage.com turnover documents in response to a Senate subcommittee when it was held in contempt of Congress for not fulfilling a subpoena. Court filings and Senate records indicate Backpage.com’s CEO resisted fulfilling the subpoena to provide documents to prove it’s not a hub of online sex trafficking but rather show an intensive screening process to sort out illegal advertising.
But the top senators on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Portmanand Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, don’t think such documents exist. After repeated noncompliance with the subpoena, Backpage.com was slapped with the contempt of Congress, and a suit was fiiled in federal court to enforce the order. That order was upheld this week, but Backpage.com’s CEO Carl Ferrer is appealing the decision.
The subcommittee requested “any documents concerning Backpage’s reviewing, blocking, deleting, editing, or modifying advertisements in adult sections,” which would include its policies, manuals, memos and guidelines.
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Ferrer’s attorneys said in the court documents that recent congressional efforts to pursue and investigate Backpage.com and other online publishers are “underscoring threats to First Amendment interests.,” They also said this case “reinforces ‘the importance of preserving free speech on the internet” and that “online intermediaries, like Backpage, have been essential for the Internet to become and remain a vital medium of free expression for billions of users who exchange ideas and information all over the world.”
McCaskill, the ranking member on the subcommittee, said during a March hearing, “[T]he majority of children who are sold for sex in the United States today were trafficked using Backpage.” The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children say more than 70 percent of underage trafficking reported to them involve a Backpage.com post.
Some estimates say that 20.9 million are trafficked worldwide, while other estimates say it’s around 27 million people, mostly children. It’s believed that more than 100,000 children are trafficked in the sex trade in the United States and more than 1,000 children are victimized annually, while thousands more are at risk.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said his office is “just now starting to scratch the surface of this whole issue.”
“Human trafficking is not just something that’s in some foreign country; it’s right here in the state of Ohio,” he told the Journal-News. “I think we’ve made some progress, but we’ve got a lot further to go.”
The Human Trafficking Commission through DeWine’s office was convened in August 2011, and since that time the human trafficking task forces have been started in Cincinnati and central Ohio, more education and training groups have been formed, and legislation has been signed in to law in 2012 and 2014.
“Human trafficking continues and it exists around us without sometimes seeing it or understanding it’s here,” DeWine said. “Anytime you have an interstate highway, you have both good things and bad things.”
While the good things include commerce and jobs, the bad, DeWine said, include a channel for drugs and “human trafficking in these arteries.”
Former newspaper reporter turned author, Christopher Stollar of Columbus, spent a decade researching trafficking — three years of which was done in Ohio — and recently published his novel “The Black Lens.”
“It was eye-opening,” he said of the research which included interviewing law enforcment, social workers and more than a dozen trafficking survivors. “The fact is that many people don’t want to believe trafficking is happening in our own neighborhood, and that’s a reason it’s allowed to continue to grow.”
And Interstates 75 and 70 connect human traffickers to dozens of states, and while data is crucial to help fight human trafficking, “unfortunately there’s not a lot of good data out there,” Stollar said. “Data depends on reporting, and there’s not a lot of reporting because these women are fearful.”
National Human Trafficking Resource Center is the largest organization to track trafficking data, having done so since 2007. In Ohio in 2015, there were 1,066 calls and 289 cases reported to law enforcement. Through June this year, more than 700 calls have been received and 186 cases reported.
And the most common themes of the more than a dozen women Stollar interviewed was the use of online tools “to recruit and retain victims.”
“I think the biggest thing for me is,” he said, “I really hope that this book and news stories will ultimately help people understand that this happening.”