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. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2017 @ 10:57am

    Politicians are not interested in solving problems, as that takes work, but in rather sweeping them under the carpet, and claiming that in hiding the problem, they have solved it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    DannyB (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 11:05am


    Hollywood is not interested in solving any problems in human trafficking. They pull the strings of politicians. Therefore politicians are not interested. But politicians have to be seen as doing something.

    Let me hypothesize how we get here. Hollywood sees Copyright Infringement as the worst possible crime of all crimes on planet Earth. Far far worse than murder, rape, injury or human trafficking.

    Hollywood sees CDA 230 as its arch enemy. Also the TLAs no doubt hate CDA 230. So they see an opportunity to get rid of CDA 230 under the false pretense of stopping human trafficking. The fact that it would actually make human trafficking worse is of no concern for them, IMO.


    [x] Think of the copyrights!
    [_] Think of the children!
    [_] Think of the terrorists!
    [x] Think of the campaign contributions!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    A Concerned Citizen, 28 Aug 2017 @ 11:19am

    Include other service providers too!

    As I understand it, most sex traffickers also use mobile phones. Therefore we should also hold phone companies responsible for allowing their products to be misused. If you can't keep your product from being misused, then maybe you shouldn't be selling it! It's high time we put a stop to it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2017 @ 11:22am

    Re: Re:

    More like Hollywood has figured out that suing individuals will cost them money, no matter how much they are awarded, but a win against Google on the other hand could be quite profitable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2017 @ 11:39am

    I agree that 230 is very important, but after reading the article on the mother who recovered her daughter, I noticed it said Backpage was editing posts. If they truly were editing post and not removing content that was reported as sex trafficking then I think there could be a strong case for stripping Backpage of its 230 protection. Of course there would have to be strong evidence that they were the ones editing posts, and not removing post that should have been removed. I suspect that things did not happen exactly as the article states.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 11:41am


    Importantly, if Backpage were truly editing posts in a way that violated the law (including producing the content themselves), Section 230 already allows the DOJ to go after them for it. Yet another reason why no change in the law is necessary.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    TKnarr (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 12:14pm


    I suspect the editing claim here's similar to one made by a Federal agent trying to run a sting on Backpage: when an ad using language that suggested the person being advertised was underage and/or involved in prostitution was submitted, BP refused to accept it and the poster had to edit it until all such suggestion was removed. This was presented as equivalent to BP editing the posting themselves, which of course it isn't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 2:12pm

    "X percent of human trafficking found is found on Backpage" =/= "X percent of human trafficking is taking place on Backpage"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Hugo S Cunningham (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 2:39pm

    SESTA-- a hydrogen bomb for roach removal

    In the 1960s, it was calculated that humble pests like roaches had far better survival chances from nuclear war than humans. Similarly, if holy warriors destroy Section 230 to go after sex trade , the sex trade will endure (in criminal hands), even while the Internet is crippled.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2017 @ 3:45pm

    "will be completely counterproductive to its own goals"

    Reminds me of TD and most of the people that support regulation. Out of "fear" that a free market "might" create something bad, we go ahead and ask for regulation to make it certain it gets created so we can then control it! Yea, the corruption we are afraid of in the free market could never form in government or a regulatory agency, despite the fact that TD tends to call them out. It is all just a bunch of theater! You can move the goal post anywhere you want, the corruption will just follow it!

    Like SESTA, government only has one goal, to write law that gives IT more power. Government does not care about you, it cares about control and order. If inhibiting you, marginalizing you, abusing you, taking from you, jailing you, torturing you, or just flat out murdering you is necessary for it to maintain control and order, then it does it regardless. It does not care if it benefits society, it only cares if it benefits it voracious appetite for POWER! All to "protect" you of course!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 28 Aug 2017 @ 4:02pm


    And your alternative is...?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Aug 2017 @ 5:13pm


    I like how you pretend that the problems that people are advocating be regulated are only hypothetical.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 29 Aug 2017 @ 5:12am

    But if we don't demonize BackPage and open them up to being sued for a kajillion dollars... they might expect us to actually deal with the real problems in the world.

    Soundbites matter more than law, rules, rights...

    BackPage facilitated this!!
    So did the hotel, the sheet maker, the mattress maker, the pillow maker, the maid, the laundry service...etc etc etc.

    If we are going to open up blame to such a degree why stop at just BackPage?
    I'm SURE there are a bunch of grieving parents who would love to sue gun makers for facilitating the death of their children. But we have laws saying you can't blame them... but because this happens 'on the internet' it has to be different.

    Holding BackPage responsible is scapegoating them to protect the parents egos.
    Your child made contact with someone online, who talked them into running away from you, got them to leave.... all while you never looked at what they were doing online or asking any real questions.
    Parents are to concerned with being a buddy who is liked, they forget the rest of the world isn't forced to protect their kid.

    I gave my kid a smartphone, I never ask who they are talking to or ask to see what photos they have.
    My kids been secretive with the phone, well I guess they need some privacy.
    How did they get my kid!!! BACKPAGE DID IT!!!
    Or you just expected the world to do the heavy lifting & raise your kid for you... and now politicians are trying to make a 3rd party responsible for your shitty parenting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    edinjapan (profile), 29 Aug 2017 @ 6:03am

    Craigslist, now Backpage...

    And once Backpage is made unattractive to these people there will be a new site that they will gravitate to. That site will be shut down and another will spring up and then another and another and then a new site will open up whose owners are in some country that the US can't get into or influence and the traffickers will have won.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Aug 2017 @ 8:33am

    Re: Craigslist, now Backpage...

    Exactly, but on the whole the people running those sites are much easier to find than those who traffic humans. Its a case of go for the third parties for an easy win in a never ending war, but the wins are always good propaganda.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    PaulT (profile), 30 Aug 2017 @ 4:13am

    Re: Re:

    While your tirade against Hollywood might be valid elsewhere, here it's really out of place. The whole reason Backpage is going through what it did is because a showboating politician directly blames them for the trafficking and wants to remove all protections they have for merely being an innocent 3rd party platform. It's a personal vendetta, not something the MPAA dreamed up.

    The reason this act is getting as far as it is, is because enough politicians aren't thinking through the actual consequences and/or don't want to be seen as opposing something called the "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" when they're up for re-election.

    This has nothing to do with Hollywood, it's pure "think of the children" and "politicians need to be seen as doing *something* even if that something will be damaging and counter-productive".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    PaulT (profile), 30 Aug 2017 @ 4:14am

    Re: Re:

    Yet to be determined...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    PaulT (profile), 30 Aug 2017 @ 4:16am

    Re: Re:

    I like the random hyperbole. Using his words, regulating free markets inevitably leads to the government murdering you! While of course, unregulated corporations would never do that. Well, apart from the many times in history they do exactly that, of course.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Aug 2017 @ 4:42am

    Re: Re: Craigslist, now Backpage...

    Once they move offshore it gets harder to find them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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