MENU

Photo: Scott Eisen/AP Photo

The U.S. Congress is set to pass a law clamping down on internet platforms that facilitate sex trafficking, but some critics say it's the wrong move.

Amy Schumer, stand-up comic and star of Trainwreck, is holding a sign that reads #IAmJaneDoe, and she is joined in this PSA by other celebrities such as Seth Meyers and Josh Charles, all holding identical signs.

“Today you can go online and buy a child for sex. It’s as easy as ordering a pizza,” Schumer says into the camera. The comedian and her fellow stars implore the public to call their representatives and push for a bill targeting online sex trafficking.

A hybrid of the Senate’s SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and the House’s FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act), the bill is awaiting vote at the Senate this week.  

To many, SESTA/FOSTA seems like a no-brainer. Websites such as Backpage.com, the “Walmart of sex trafficking,” would be held responsible for their content and be liable for illegal activity that has long gone unchecked on their platforms. Victims would be able to sue digital marketplaces for facilitating trafficking.

The brainchild of Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), the legislation has long been a popular celebrity cause. Schumer has been a vocal supporter since last year, urging followers on Twitter and Instagram to call their senators in support of the bill. Recently, Ivanka Trump has joined the bandwagon. The bill also enjoys longstanding bipartisan popularity, the support of families with trafficked children and the approval of human trafficking advocacy groups.

Despite a broad spectrum of supporters, SESTA/FOSTA and its SESTA predecessor have both drawn harsh critiques as well.

“Simply put, the bill is only symbolic in nature. It will have no measurable impact on combating sex trafficking.”

Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco—an expert on human trafficking, one of a handful of researchers who serves as expert witnesses in criminal and civil courts across the United States and the only human trafficking expert witness admitted by the Los Angeles Superior Court—is one such opponent.

The core premise of SESTA/FOSTA is inherently flawed, Mehlman-Orozco says, and the bill could have detrimental effects to law enforcement’s fight against sex trafficking.

“Simply put, the bill is only symbolic in nature. It will have no measurable impact on combating sex trafficking, and there’s absolutely no theoretical or empirical evidence to suggest that it will,” she said.

Mehlman-Orozco, speaking from her experience as a human trafficking methodologist, research scientist and consultant, says the bills are riddled with flaws. The legislation risks conflating sex trafficking with sex work, further exposing consenting sex workers to prosecution, leaving smaller companies open to liability and heavily moderating online speech. Effective strategies for combating online sex trafficking exist, Mehlman-Orozco argues, but Congress is not paying attention.

Any federal legislation would only apply to U.S.-based sites, and those websites are already generally cooperative with U.S. law enforcement.

Websites like Backpage.com, she said, “are a proverbial honeypot for law enforcement, who use them as a catalyst for arrests and rescues.”

From left, Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, former owner James Larkin, COO Andrew Padilla, and former owner Michael Lacey, are sworn-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing into Backpage.com's alleged facilitation of online sex trafficking on Jan. 10, 2017. Cliff Owen/AP Photo

They usually respond swiftly to subpoenas for information from law enforcement agencies to aid investigations. But the history of the commercial sex industry is one of displacement: Kill one weed and five more sprout in different, hidden cracks in the system. When U.S.-based platforms are targeted for illegal activity on their networks, criminals migrate to international sites that are uncooperative, restricted to peer-to-peer referrals and password protection or on the dark web, according to Mehlman-Orozco.

Mehlman-Orozco points to the history of Craigslist shutting down its adult section. The ads didn’t disappear or die; they simply migrated to other platforms. The same thing happened with the Backpage.com adult section. “They’re continuously going to play a game of whack-a-mole and go after the next one,” she said.

While Backpage.com came into existence in 2004 as the second largest classified ads website, it only gained notoriety in 2011 after being slapped with lawsuit after lawsuit. While most of them were dismissed under the Communications Decency Act, pressure continued, culminating in January 2017 when Backpage.com suspended its adult listings the day after a Senate subcommittee led by Portman released a scathing report. The “adult section” was shuttered, but law enforcement officials say the activity simply moved to the “dating section.”

“They’re continuously going to play a game of whack-a-mole and go after the next one.”

In a statement, Backpage.com said that “new government tactics, including pressuring credit card companies to cease doing business with Backpage, have left the company with no other choice but to remove the content in the United States.”

Backpage.com does not exist to sell sex, nor was it created for the purpose of human trafficking. However, Humaniplex.comCityVibe.com, TheEroticReview.comECCIE.netUSASexGuide.info and many other commercial sex websites have engaged in human sex trafficking for years, according to Mehlman-Orozco. What differentiates them is that Backpage.com is based in the United States, while the rest are hosted internationally. Legislation passed in Congress will not affect them.

“This bill is not in any way, shape or form about reducing sex trafficking. It is about making it more clandestine; hiding it from the larger public. That’s all it will do,” Mehlman-Orozco said.

The parents of victims of sex trafficking made impassioned pleas against Backpage.com during the initial hearings on SESTA. “I am Jane Doe,” the original news documentary that premiered in February 2017 followed all the lawsuits against Backpage.com by sex trafficked victims and their families.

But missing from their testimony was the fact that the children were also found because of their sex ads on Backpage.com. The traffickers cast a wide net using Backpage.com, while also selling children on the street and through peer-to-peer referral. The advertisement strategy of a sex trafficker does not solely depend on Backpage.com, they know how to diversify to reach a larger market. Mehlman-Orozco strongly believes that those children would never have been found had their ad on Backpage.com not been spotted.

“Pass pieces of legislation that dictate when and under what circumstances websites need to provide information to law enforcements and facilitate more open lines of communication,” she suggested as an alternative to the SESTA/FOSTA bill. “Require websites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram etc. to invest in evidence-based methods in combatting this type of crime.”

Some of these solutions are already being tested. Facebook is working with law enforcement agencies to develop facial recognition software to scan sex trafficking ads for missing persons. Google, in conjunction with Thorn and the Hovde Foundation, has tasked its engineers with developing Spotlight, a tool which scans millions of ads online to identify potential victims of sex trafficking. It is being employed by law enforcement from all 50 states, having identified over 18,000 victims and 6,000 traffickers in one year.

Mehlman-Orozco expresses her frustration at the popular but inaccurate rhetoric that tech giants simply oppose this legislation and offer up no alternate solutions. She claims to have reached out to Sen. Portman’s office more than a dozen times to offer up her expertise and empirically backed arguments on why this bill may not be a step in the right direction. A request for comment by Sen. Portman was not returned by publication time.

“I’ve served as an expert witness on more criminal and civil cases than all of the testifying experts combined … but I was not allowed to testify. Reason being, I’m presenting a very compelling and strong case against this legislation,” she said.

Recently, University of California, Berkeley PhD student Rebecca Portnoff, in conjunction with NYU assistant professor of computer science and engineering Damon McCoy, developed algorithms that may help track the traffickers.

“We’re trying to develop techniques that could link together a large number of ads, which is usually indicative of human sex trafficking,” McCoy said. This is done by fingerprinting a person’s handwriting and calculating the probability of whether an ad was written by the same person. This is compared to Bitcoin transactions that purchase sex ads on Backpage.com, which are public record and the common payment method in sex trafficking.

McCoy says they are actively recruiting law enforcement agencies to begin using these algorithms, and they have already been adopted by USPIS, Thorn and Coinbase.

“Backpage.com has been and continues to be a tool for law enforcement. They shouldn’t be vilified or treated like criminals.” Mehlman-Orozco said. “This particular piece of legislation, it was two pages long. I don’t think there was a lot of thought put into it or a lot of discussion on collateral consequences,” she said. “It should not be passed in any shape or form. I think there should be discussion on first how to better implement laws that are already in place and practice those.”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Lowdown, ABP’s weekly roundup of under-the-radar headlines, mind-blowing science and emerging talent. Make your Tuesday a little cooler.

Related Stories