U.S. Lawmakers Seek to End Impunity for Online Sale of Children

By | April 20, 2017

WASHINGTON DC, April 21 (C-Fam) A bipartisan bill introduced last week by U.S. lawmakers seeks to end impunity for website owners who knowingly facilitate online sale of children for sex. Currently, such websites hide behind an archaic federal communications law on internet freedom. The bill would also allow restitution to its victims.

“Congress never intended for Section 230 to give a free pass to the retailers of America’s children, and we must address the judicial interpretation of the law and provide a voice for the most vulnerable in our society,” Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO), who introduced the bill.

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (HR 1865) amends Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Courts have cited the law when dismissing charges against Backpage.com, an online classified advertisement company valued at a half billion dollars that sells women and children for sex.

Children sold through Backpage.com have sought restitution for inflicted harm but federal courts have dismissed the case against the online company finding that Section 230 of the CDA offered protection from all liability for third party content, “even if it were participating in, profiting from, or was a co-conspirator in a federal crime.”  A U.S. Court of Appeals 1st District decision in 2016 made it clear congressional action was necessary to correct the interpretation of immunity.

A Senate subcommittee investigation in January found that Backpage.com knowingly allowed the placement of sex advertisements of minors and even collaborated with pimps on how to disguise online ads offering sexual encounters with minor girls. Anti-trafficking organizations testified that over 75% of their child sex trafficking victims report they were bought and sold on Backpage.com.

The film “I Am Jane Doe” raised public awareness by chronicling the challenges of the young victims and their parents seeking legal recourse against Backpage.com’s parent company, Village Voice Media Holdings, its CEO Carl Ferrer, and co-owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey.

The film was featured at a recent high-level UN event, co-sponsored by C-Fam, publisher of the Friday Fax.

Backpage.com operates in more than 96 countries and reportedly has an 80% market share of online commercial sex advertising in the U.S. Backpage.com shut down its escort ads following the senate investigation, giving the appearance that that they no longer allow advertisements for sexual encounters. Not so, “I am Jane Doe” filmmaker Mary Mazzio told the Friday Fax.

Mazzio said that she had been informed by several trafficking groups that approximately 75% of the sex ads on the Escorts Page had migrated to the dating pages, “and there is no reason to think that ads for children are not happening.  So not only is Backpage continuing to carry sex ads, but its affiliate sites continued business as usual with sex ads (NakedCity, BigCity) which all operate in the U.S.”

Mazzio said she first discovered Backpage.com’s role in child sex trafficking when reading the dismissal of a court case filed by several children  near her hometown of Boston. With further research she discovered this wasn’t an isolated case but it was a widespread issue throughout the country.

“Our goal evolved and became a journey with the children and their families, “ she said. “We hope the project will create greater awareness that this crime is happening in alarming numbers to thousands and thousands of children. Hidden in plain sight.”

Mazzio said she hopes her film will spur legislators to support the Wagner bill.