Sex Trafficking Expert: CDA 230 Helps Victims And SESTA Would Harm Trafficking Victims

from the don't-believe-the-hype dept

Over the last few weeks, we've been talking about SESTA -- the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Part of our argument is that the bill will be completely counterproductive to its own goals. As we explained in a letter to Congress (signed by a bunch of tech companies), after two decades of watching CDA 230 in practice, it's clear that SESTA will do the exact opposite of what supporters claim it will do. But that's from the point of view of internet companies who know how the law intersects with technology.

But what about experts in trafficking. In our letter, we admitted that area is not our expertise, but that we're all supportive of the idea of stopping trafficking. However, someone who is an expert in trafficking is Alexandra Levy, a law professor at Notre Dame, who works at the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center and teaches a class entirely about human trafficking. She's written up a fascinating blog post for professor Eric Goldman's blog where she explains why SESTA will be a total disaster for human trafficking.

More than two decades later, Section 230 allows people to do more than just set the terms of acceptable speech. It also empowers countless users — including the FBI, victim advocates, concerned citizens, family members, and nonprofit organizations, among others — to proactively fight atrocities such as human trafficking. By removing liability from internet intermediaries (such as Backpage), Section 230 enables intermediaries to serve as a natural pathway between victims and those who want to help them.

Due to its wide accessibility, Backpage has enabled people to find and recover family members (including with the help of journalists); nonprofits point to it as a resource for identifying and reaching out to victims; and scores of criminal indictments reveal its value as a point of connection between police and victims. Statistics also show how Section 230 may assist the fight against human trafficking: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), among others, reports that the majority of child sex trafficking reported to them involve Backpage.

None of this should be surprising: after all, it stands to reason that victims whose services are advertised in more visible places, like Backpage, are more visible to everyone — and thus easier to recover. In this way, Backpage sets a trap for traffickers: lured by the prospect of reaching a large, centralized repository of customers, traffickers end up revealing themselves to law enforcement and victim advocates. There’s nothing to suggest that Backpage causes them to be victimized, but plenty of reason to believe that, without it, they would be much harder to find. Section 230 allows Backpage to serve as a lifeline between trafficking victims and those who want to usher them to safety.

As Levy goes on to explain, while so many seem quick to blame Backpage for trafficking, they're confusing Backpage being used to rescue victims and track down traffickers as somehow being responsible for the trafficking happening in the first place. She notes, as we suggested, that Section 230 makes it possible for sites to shine a light on trafficking, to alert authorities, and to play a strong role in preventing or stopping trafficking. Taking that away will kill that. Hiding trafficking doesn't stop the trafficking. In fact, it can make things worse.

But while Backpage isn’t allowed to traffic people, Section 230 currently prevents it from getting in trouble for shining a light on human trafficking. That’s the crucial distinction at the heart of Section 230, and it’s the provision that proves most infuriating to those who insist that causing victims to disappear from Backpage is going to somehow return them to safety. Because of Section 230, people who try to sue Backpage for simply revealing trafficking have been unsuccessful (if they could show that Backpage had engaged in trafficking, their suits would not be dismissed).

In order to get trafficking victims to stop appearing on Backpage, these advocates call for legislation to limit its Section 230 protection. Their most recent move is the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017” (“SESTA”), introduced in the Senate in early August. Among other things, SESTA would allow people to directly sue Backpage (and other intermediaries) for damages for human trafficking — even if Backpage didn’t do anything more than shine a light.

This is part of what's so infuriating about the rush to pass SESTA. It's one of those bills that makes claims that nearly everyone supports. Sex trafficking is bad and of course we should support efforts to stop it. But, this bill wouldn't do that -- and, in fact, would almost certainly make the problem worse. Tech companies who have dealt with CDA 230 know that already, and it's good to see some sex trafficking experts come to the same conclusion.

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Filed Under: alex levy, cda 230, intermediary liability, section 230, sesta, sex trafficking
Companies: backpage


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 2:46pm

    Sound bites vs Addressing the problem

    "The problem is a difficult one, and it takes dedication and extensive work to address. Simply pretending it doesn't exist does not solve the problem, and will in fact make it worse, so while it may seem wrong for such sites to be 'allowed' to host such content that is in fact what we want to happen, as it makes it easier to find the victims and punish those that deserve it."

    That takes a lot of words(and more importantly work), doesn't promise an easy fix, and keeps the problem visible so people aren't able to pretend it doesn't exist.

    "By making it so sites like Backpage are liable for the content that their users post we have ensured that they are all but legally required to carefully vet each and every submission in order to prevent any that might involve human trafficking, ensuring that no-one uses the platform for such disgusting activity."

    That on the other hand is simple, takes no work on the part of those passing the laws, holds no risk of being seen as 'soft on human trafficking', and neatly brushes the problem under the rug, making it look like it was effective.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: Those pushing these kinds of laws are at best hopelessly incompetent and honestly think that they're helping, but are much more likely in the position where they don't give a damn about the actual victims and are instead merely using them as cheap and easy PR.

    If they were actually interesting in addressing the problem they wouldn't be constantly trying to brush it under the rug and pretend that if you can't see it it's no longer there.


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