A bit of very good news got lost in the hubbub of constant Washington controversies last month: The U.S. Senate passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which seeks justice for victims of sex trafficking and ensures that websites which knowingly facilitate this horrible crime can be held liable. And on April 11, President Trump signed our legislation into law.
I cosponsored this legislation because it combats a real threat to the most vulnerable members of our society, especially young people, the poor and immigrants.
Human trafficking is a terrible and tragic industry, affecting every community across the country. Since 2012, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has seen yearly increases in reported cases, rising to 8,524 in 2017. Even so, this is a small fraction of the total estimated cases of human trafficking and exploitation that occur in our country every year.
Unfortunately, Texas is no exception. As the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault revealed in a study from late 2016, there are currently an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in our state, including approximately 79,000 minors and youth as victims of sex trafficking.
While the effect on victims of this heinous exploitation is first in our hearts, the state and its taxpayers also shoulder burdens long after crimes are committed — by funding law enforcement, prosecution and the inevitable treatment and social services required by so many victims of abuse. The same UT study estimated that the cost of care resulting from sex trafficking of minors and youth exceeds $83,000 over an average victim’s lifetime, draining the state of more than $6.5 billion.
When these individuals are sexually exploited, it is often via classified ad websites like Backpage.com, some of which have knowingly played host to such activity. After a three-year joint investigation of Backpage, Texas and California attempted to hold the owners of this website accountable; until recently, they were hindered by antiquated laws which have proved unequal to 21st century trafficking methods.
Law enforcement had previously relied on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was never intended to offer legal protections for websites to function as intentional online platforms for prostitution.
In December of 2016, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman dismissed charges against the owners of Backpage.com, saying that “Congress has spoken on this matter, and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit.”
Consider it revisited.
SESTA/FOSTA clarifies the accountability of these websites and expands penalties for those who run them. We want to ensure that those who promote and enable these grotesque crimes will be held liable and brought to justice — in Texas and all over America.
This legislation passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, a welcome indication that there is still room for cooperation by both parties to protect our fellow Americans.
According to the Department of Justice, on April 5, the CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to “conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce and to engage in money laundering.”
By the next day, visitors to Backpage were greeted by this message: “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division.”
Author’s note: To report suspected human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To report suspected sexual exploitation of a minor in Texas, please call the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400. If there is an emergency or you believe someone is in immediate danger, please call 911 right away.