HUMAN TRAFFICKING AND THE LEGAL LOOPHOLE

Posted on January 31, 2018 by Laura E. Laughlin

Human trafficking is an enormous problem that should be getting much more attention.  With the upcoming Super Bowl, there will be an influx of trafficking victims nearby the stadium to cater to the many men attending the big event.  Although the NFL denies the link between the Super Bowl and an uptick in human sex trafficking, there is evidence suggesting otherwise.

Dr. Mellissa Withers explained in anticipation of last year’s Super Bowl in Houston, Texas: “The underground nature of trafficking means that much of the activity goes undocumented but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This serious societal problem is too important to refute or ignore because of stubborn denials or a lack of data.”   To read the full article by Dr. Withers, you can find it here.

To understand the magnitude of human trafficking, let me start out by giving you some statistics:

  • Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris, has received reports of 22,191 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.
  • This hotline receives an average of 100 calls each day.
  • In 2016, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated that 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims.
  • Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.
  • In a 2014 report, the Urban Institute estimated that the underground sex economy ranged from $39.9 million in Denver, Colorado, to $290 million in Atlanta, Georgia.

How are people trafficked?

Here’s a typical scenario: a young girl leaves home with her internet “boyfriend” after a fight with her parents.  She is then trafficked into sex slavery and is repeatedly molested and raped numerous times each day for months, maybe even years.  She is forced to take photos wearing practically nothing in seductive poses.  Then, the photos are put on the internet with language to entice male adults to click on the ad and inquire.

This is a common story behind the advertisements on Backpage.com.  If you’re unfamiliar with Backpage, it is a forum similar to Craiglist, but also includes listings for prostitution.  With the click of a mouse, you can purchase sex and have a girl delivered to your door.  While some may not see an issue with this lifestyle, there is a major issue with some of the postings on Backpage.  Some of the ads do not feature women over the age of 18.  Instead, they feature and sell children.  Backpage.com is notorious for posting ads of young trafficking victims.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says classifieds website Backpage.com is involved in nearly three-quarters of all reports of online child sex trafficking that it receives from the general public.  A Senate investigation showed adult ads proved to be big business for Backpage, generating more than 90 percent of its ad revenue in 2011.

Once someone is trafficked, it is extremely difficult to break them away from being trafficked.  The pimp manipulates and brainwashes the victim to create a bond that is not always easy to break.  Initially, when victims are sometimes rescued, they may be hostile to the police or people trying to help, but through therapy, the brainwashing can be undone.

The Backpage Litigation

Parents of the surviving trafficking victims, as well as the victims themselves, have tried to file lawsuits against Backpage.com for allowing underage girls to be sold for sex and trafficked through their website.  The documentary “I am Jane Doe” on Netflix describes the legal battle victims and their families have been facing for several years.  Since selling children for sex is illegal, it would seem that the websites that allow this to happen should be held accountable.  However, as the documentary shows, it’s not exactly easy to do so.

Websites like Backpage have found a legal loophole in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  This federal law was enacted in 1996 and grants internet service providers immunity from responsibility for third-party content on their websites.  Initially, this law was passed when the internet was rapidly expanding and the law wanted to protect websites, which were providing a forum to post online content, from liability for the content that was posted.  As we all know, the internet has continued to expand since that time and the lawmakers never really anticipated the things the internet could be used for today.

Over and over again, the lawsuits brought against Backpage were dismissed based on the immunity under the Communications Decency Act.  One case has been successful thus far by crafting an argument to close the loophole.  In order to qualify for the immunity, you cannot be actively editing content in the post; you must only provide the forum to do so.  The successful argument was that Backpage was not passive in allowing posts of underage girls for prostitution, but instead, it participated in the content that was posted by making edits that would allow the posts involving children to go undetected by law enforcement.

A Senate report alleges Backpage “knowingly concealed evidence” of child sex trafficking through its editing “by deleting words, phrases, and images indicative of criminality.” Senate investigators said words like “young,” “little girl” and “innocent” were removed while “the remainder of the ad would be published.”

The owners of Backpage.com were required to testify before a congressional hearing on this issue in a push to close the loophole for immunity.  At the hearing, each of the executives decided to plead the 5th and not offer any testimony.  While the law has not yet been changed to close the loophole, I’m hopeful that it will be.

Trafficking isn’t always something that is on our minds daily, but it is happening around us every single day.  Keep your eyes open for signs of trafficking, which can be found here.  If you have Netflix, watch “I am Jane Doe” to educate yourself.  When you see something, tell someone.  You just may be the key to a girl getting saved from being trafficked.