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Sex trafficking bill likely to do more harm than good

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) was voted into law this week, but it won’t end child sex trafficking online. The justification for this legislation rests on the misleading idea that individual websites facilitate child sex trafficking, when in reality the Internet as whole has brought this practice out of the shadows and proliferated it.

In the coming months, FOSTA will likely be used to go after previously vilified websites, like Backpage.com and Craigslist.org, despite the fact that those platforms have been used as critical tools for law enforcement and facilitated the rescues of victims and arrests of offenders. Meanwhile, other websites that are also used by sex traffickers, like Facebook, will continue business as usual.

If Backpage.com and Craigslist.org are being blamed for the actions of third parties, why isn’t Facebook.com under fire as well? Especially considering that numerous sex traffickers utilize their platform to recruit victims and have done so for years.

For example, on July 31, Edgardo Maravilla-Martinez pled guilty to sex trafficking of children and assault with intent to commit 1st degree child abuse. For this offense, he was sentenced to only 72 months in prison. He recruited his teenage victims through Facebook, first with promises of money and gifts, followed by threats of deadly violence.

In 2012, Justin Strom was called the “CEO” of the largest underage prostitution ring in the Washington region’s history. Mr. Strom also approached his teenage victims through fake accounts on Facebook and MySpace, where he exchanged hundreds of private messages with victims, promising them money and gifts, before employing violence to keep them compliant.

Now, if Facebook can detect and remove a video that features a copyrighted song within minutes, why aren’t they employing an algorithm to detect and report conversations related to sex trafficking recruitment and sales? Or, in the context of FOSTA, why aren’t they being blamed for failing to do so, like other websites?

I asked this very same question recently at the “Freedom Together” D.C., Maryland and Virginia Regional Anti Human Trafficking Task Force Conference. After a pregnant pause, some hemming and hawing, and being told it was an “excellent point,” various task force representatives attempted to make the following distinctions between the third party liability causes of action against Facebook.com versus Backpage.com.

An assistant United States attorney for the District of Columbia claimed that the distinction is found in the fact that Facebook is viewed as a new digital private company version of a public forum, and we expect privacy in those direct message interactions, so Facebook should not be expected to read that content, nor be held liable if the platform is used by sex traffickers.

I found his statement interesting, considering that his argument is strikingly similar to the opponents of FOSTA and their concerns for privacy.

A detective for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia went on to say that we wouldn’t blame Verizon if sex traffickers use their phone to text message victims, which is why we don’t blame Facebook. Moreover, the detective then claimed that Backpage.com is different because of “it’s prominence for what that is.” He argued that while you can buy other stuff on Backpage, “most of Backpage is about buying and selling sex.”

This statement is also interesting, considering that neither Backpage.com or Craistlist.org were created with the intent of hosting commercial sex advertisements or facilitating commercial sex exchanges. In fact, both websites were developed with the objective of creating a virtual public forum for classified advertisements, like those you would find in the back pages of newspapers. Once the websites started being used by third parties for advertising commercial sex, the administrators for both became actively cooperative with law enforcement investigations.

All the while, sites that are actually dedicated to the sale of commercial sex have operated under the radar of legislators, law enforcement and the media. The administrators for these websites have openly expressed their disinclination for cooperating with U.S. law enforcement and aren’t the least bit concerned regarding the passage of FOSTA because they are largely based overseas. For example, speaking from his “refuge somewhere outside of the USA,” the administrator of USASexGude.info wrote this in response to the prospect of FOSTA being passed this week, “While holding a passport from a non US Country, from a web site who’s servers are in Germany why do I give a f*** what law they pass in your country.”

Instead of passing a useless piece of legislation like FOSTA, which will do nothing more than vilify a few websites while the commercial sex advertisements are displaced and dispersed to non-cooperative websites based overseas, legislators committed to evidence-based anti-trafficking reform should consider legislation that facilitates cooperation and information exchange between private companies and law enforcement. As a leading expert witness for criminal and civil human trafficking cases in the United States, I can attest that these partnerships would be more valuable in the war against sex trafficking. It is time to stop talking platitudes and supporting hollow policies, and start making a measurable impact against this scourge.

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco (www.mehlmanorozco.com) is the author of “Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium."

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