Backpage.com shuttered its sex-for-sale webpage, but the fight to stop exploiting children is far from over. Congress needs to step in.
AFTER the U.S. Senate hearing earlier this month on Backpage.com’s facilitation of sex trafficking on its website, I took two mothers — one from my own state of Washington — who had testified on their children’s victimization on a tour of the Capitol.
That evening, as we stood at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, we wondered what victory had been won. Backpage.com had announced the closure of the “adult services” page of the website, true, but what did this really mean in the fight to save our children from sex trafficking?
For each mom, her courage did nothing to lessen the ongoing effects of her daughter’s trauma — even after six and eight years. The symbols of freedom at the capitol and the Lincoln Memorial brought tears with the reminder that their efforts that day were largely done on behalf of someone else’s daughter, not solely her own.
My heart was crying with them, and crying for another reason — I realized the victory, while momentarily satisfying, was only a minor skirmish, and actually a distraction.
Who are the likely beneficiaries of the recent decision by Backpage.com to take down its sex-for-sale webpage? Certainly it is not the daughters of the two mothers who testified. Potentially, then, future victims. But in less than a week that optimistic point of view has been trampled by the rapid spread of the cancer to other areas of Backpage.com’s website, and likely to other opportunistic websites eager to meet the continuing demand of buyers of sex with children and trafficked adults.
It is clear to me, and many others who worked to end the sex trafficking rampant on Backpage.com, that we must not stop here. The individual victories will never amount to winning the war. We cannot end the sale of sex with children on the internet by going after each offending website individually. The environment that makes this possible must end and the only way that can be accomplished is through legislation — Congress must act to amend the Communications Decency Act (CDA) — the legal shield that Backpage.com has successfully wielded for years to avoid responsibility for the trafficking on its website.
The root of the problem lies in Section 230 of the CDA that provides interactive computer service providers civil immunity from liability for content provided by third parties, and permits only federal criminal prosecutions for offenses, preventing the states’ prosecutors from protecting their citizens from bad actors who qualify for this immunity. Backpage.com qualifies as an interactive computer service provider (ICSP), as do many, many internet businesses. Clearly it was not the intent of the drafters of Section 230 to protect illegal activity such as facilitating the sale of children for sex, but this is how it is being abused. The time has come to review and reconsider the scope of the protection under Section 230.
Attorneys general in 47 states have already appealed to Congress to untie the states’ hands by surgically removing the federal pre-emption when state criminal statutes are violated. The U.S. Supreme Court has signaled the need to legislatively address the civil immunity provision in Section 230 by declining to review the case of Does v. Backpage.com, allowing the First Circuit Court’s decision to stand that the CDA blocks the victims’ claims.
There will no doubt be loud and energetic debate around free speech versus the protection of our nation’s vulnerable children, but it is a debate that we must engage in immediately if we want to see the start of real change.