The Backpage Debate & All Things SESTA
Last week, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA) was passed by the Senate. Today, we're taking a look at the issue of online exploitation, the website that sparked the inspiration for the bill and both sides of the SESTA debate.
The History of Online Exploitation
With the advent of the web in 1991, an expanse of knowledge has become readily available for human consumption. Our lives have changed drastically as we have become mesmerized by the gifs, heated facebook exchanges, and digital expediency that characterizes the internet. It is unfortunate, however, that we do not realize how this technology if used incorrectly, can compromise human dignity. The free flow of ideas exhibited on the internet bears a heavy burden on those who are exploited by such technological innovation.
A significant amount of this world’s youth are routinely exploited by the advertisements posted on modern day internet platforms. Sex trafficking is no longer confined to street corners and run-down massage parlors—it is pervasive everywhere we go, and this endemic is exacerbated by the smartphones and laptops we so ardently cling to. What we do not realize is that digital world glued to our fingertips could actually be detrimental to another’s livelihood. The very elusive and well-masked industry of sex trafficking now plagues the internet browsers we depend on.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) confirms that there has been an 846% increase in reports of suspected child trafficking from 2010 to 2015. The issue of child trafficking is exacerbated by both the internet and the current laws in place to shield children from obscene material. The problem stems from the Communications and Decency Act (CDA), which was passed in 1996 to protect children from viewing sexually graphic material online.
"The issue of child trafficking is exacerbated by both the internet and the current laws in place to shield children from obscene material."
With the rise of the internet in the early 90s, lawmakers enacted a measure to protect the nation’s youth from foreseeable corruption on the internet. They did this by regulating indecency and obscenity through the passage of the CDA. The act’s most controversial section, however, is what lies at the heart of debate concerning its revision. Section 230 rids companies of any liability for what users post on their websites. This clause, known as the internet’s most important protection for free speech, subsequently enables websites to legally harbor advertisements for sex trafficking.
The Backpage Debate
Backpage, the world’s second-largest advertising website, is notorious for citing Section 230 as justification for publishing unethical advertisements. They have evaded a multitude of lawsuits because of this clause and even lawmakers acknowledge such a caveat. In August 2017, a Sacramento judge was forced to dismiss charges against Backpage. In his regretful remarks, he indicated that "If and until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the [CDA] even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.”
"If and until Congress sees fit to amend the immunity law, the broad reach of section 230 of the [CDA] even applies to those alleged to support the exploitation of others by human trafficking.”
To make matters worse, Backpage knowingly contributes to the problem of sex trafficking online and is free from legal culpability. The staff of Backpage are explicitly instructed to edit the text of ads that include any possible references to sex trafficking. The company avidly works to conceal the true nature of their advertisements by deleting words such as “young,” “little girl,” and “rape” from them in order to permit their existence on the site. In purging controversial words from their ads, Backpage is allowing the sex trafficking industry to become entrenched in a web that only polishes, rather than prohibits, the publication of content responsible for enslaving children.
Roughly 73% of the child sex trafficking reports to the NCEMC come directly from Backpage. Because of this website’s role in aiding the sex trafficking industry, it is easy to understand why so many seek to amend Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act. Lawmakers have pushed for passage of the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” or FOSTA, which would remove immunity for websites that knowingly host materials linked to sex trafficking. This bill, which passed the House of Representatives as recent as February 27th, 2018, signifies the effort of today’s legislature to curtail the power of those responsible for facilitating the sale of children online.
The Case for SESTA
Proponents of amending Section 230 of the CDA argue that protecting children from sexual exploitation should be a top priority. They argue that a law passed over 21 years ago must be updated so that it can account for the rapid progression of the internet and its subsequent role in exacerbating sex trafficking. Efforts to revise such a law, however, are impeded by a plethora of wealthy companies who actively lobby against legislation that would reduce their profits. The magnitude of this issue is exemplified by Backpage, which earns a whopping 93% of its weekly profits from the ad revenue in its adult section.
The Case Against SESTA
Opponents of amending this section argue that it is not the government’s job to regulate internet content. Such an action, they argue, would inhibit the innovation and creativity that manifests in the online world. With even more vehemence, such opponents argue that amending this section would result in a gross violation of the first amendment. Section 230 solidifies an important right to free speech for the internet and taking this away would leave companies, specifically small companies, more vulnerable to lawsuits targeting the content posted on their websites.
"Roughly 73% of the child sex trafficking reports to the NCEMC come directly from Backpage."
The United States is a country that prides itself on free expression, and to restrain the words of its people in any format will ultimately beget anger from many. Thus, the CDA is entwined in a debate whose results will either limit the exercise of a constitutional right or permit the selling and exchange of human beings online. This predicament becomes a matter of whether or not the government should loosen constitutional rights in one area so that others can be free in another respect; that is, free to not be enslaved in the digital world. The question we need to be asking moving forward is: should the right to free speech be weighed over the unenumerated right to human dignity and respect? We do not claim to know the answers, but we do know that we must take action to protect both our children and our citizens from being exploited legally on the internet.
About the Author
Sarah Beech is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin who is studying psychology and government. She is most passionate about fighting against the various human rights abuses that occur around us. In her free time, she likes to watch Netflix, hang out with her friends, and try new restaurants. Her favorite quote is, "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" (from A Cinderella Story).