The U.S. Senate Wednesday passed a bill that would give victims and prosecutors the right to sue websites that allow posts selling women and young girls – the culmination of a three-year effort by Portman to stop online sex trafficking
The bill, which passed the House at the end of February, now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature. Trump has signaled he will sign it.
“It’s a really big week,” said Portman one day before the Senate passed the bill 97 to 2, with only Sens. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, opposing. Portman said after Trump signs the bill, prosecutions of online sex traffickers could begin “within weeks.”
“People could be saved from this,” he said.
Portman, chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, launched an investigation into sex trafficking in 2015. Before long he and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, had discovered a few things: One, that the overwhelming trafficker of women and children was an online marketplace called Backpage.com, and two, that a provision within the 1996 Communications Decency Act effectively gave websites like Backpage legal protection because it protected websites from liability based on third-party posts. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Backpage.com is involved in 75 percent of the online trafficking reports it receives from the public.
The investigation – which included a Supreme Court fight to subpoena information from a very resistant Backpage.com – ultimately found that Backpage.com was well aware that they were at times selling young girls for sex on their site, but tried to protect themselves by simply editing the language on the ads, rather than take the ads down altogether. “They didn’t remove the post because they didn’t want to lose the revenue,” Portman said on the Senate floor.
Portman and other lawmakers became convinced that amending the 1996 law could prevent Backpage and other sites from having essential legal immunity to sell people online.
“It became clear that there was a federal solution that could make a big difference,” Portman said.
His bill – which has been cosponsored by 68 members of the Senate – tweaks the Communications Decency Act to ensure that websites that are essentially sex trafficking marketplaces can be sued, including by victims or law enforcement.
Among the bill’s cosponsors was Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. He said after the vote that he was glad to join his fellow Ohio senator to pass the bill. “We need to remain vigilant in rooting out human trafficking wherever it occurs,” Brown said.
Portman’s work on the issue – he ran ads highlighting the issue during his 2016 campaign – was featured in a Netflix documentary called “I am Jane Doe.”
That documentary also featured the story of Kubiiki Pride, an Atlanta mother whose daughter ran away from home. Pride looked on Backpage only to find her 14-year-old daughter being sold for sex, with pictures of her daughter in “explicit photographs.
Pride called Backpage.com and asked them to take down the ad. They refused, telling her that she didn’t post the ad nor pay for it, therefore could not take it down. Later, when she finally got her daughter back, she couldn’t sue because of the Communications Decency Act. So frustrated was the legal system by the provision in the law that at one point, a Sacramento judge threw out pimping charges against Backpage and directly called on Congress to act.
Portman said when he began pushing to change the provision, he was met by resistance from websites who told him, point-blank, that they would win.
“This law was considered sacrosanct,” he said.
But now, it’s on the verge of being changed.
“The internet has had a lot of positive aspects for society and our economy,” he said. “But there is a dark side.”
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