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Why cracking down on websites won't stop online sex trafficking

Friday, 2 March 2018 17:45 GMT

The keyboard of a computer is pictured at a computer shop in Ciudad Juarez, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Believe it or not, websites like Backpage.com are not the real bad guys in this situation

In today's political climate bipartisan legislation is rare. Combating human trafficking, however, is one issue that most Democrats and Republicans can agree upon. The only problem is that many politicians are so amenable to any anti-trafficking intervention; they aren't adequately assessing half-baked policies before voting in favor of them.

Most recently, the House of Representatives passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), 388 in favor and only 25 opposed. FOSTA is designed to hold websites liable for third party commercial sex advertisements involving a victim or victims of sex trafficking.

This means that if sex traffickers advertise their victims on a website, that website could be found liable in criminal and/or civil court, even if they in no way colluded with the actual trafficker.

At first blush, this may seem like a win in the war against sex trafficking, but in reality it's not. 

Like many forms of crime, sex trafficking operates in relation to law enforcement like a game of cat and mouse. When law enforcement begins to compete, traffickers and commercial sex consumers adapt.

To that effect, we have historically seen the displacement and dispersion of commercial sex advertisements in response to third-party liability threats.

For example, when the website Craigslist.org was vilified as the “Wal-Mart of child sex trafficking," administrators shuttered the erotic and adult sections and the ads were displaced to the casual encounters section and to Backpage.com. Seven years later, when Backpage.com was accused of being the new “Wal-Mart of child sex trafficking,” they too shuttered the erotic and adult sections on the website, the advertisements were again displaced, but this time to the Women-for-Men dating section and other websites like Humaniplex.com and CityVibe.com

Many anti-trafficking advocates contend that regardless of the displacement and dispersion, these efforts are important and useful, but criminological theory and empirical research suggest otherwise.

At present, most law enforcement and anti-human trafficking agencies are singularly focused on virtually patrolling Backpage.comwhich is why 73% of the 10,000 child-trafficking reports received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) involve that website. Meanwhile, a litany of other websites is largely ignored in comparison. If FOSTA is passed into law, this number will mushroom, including restricted access websites that operate under the radar of law enforcement. For example, unbeknown to most, there are secret commercial sex oriented Facebook groups, like “Magic City Hotties,” which can only be accessed through peer-to-peer referral. There are also password-protected websites, which have thus far evaded the scrutiny of police, such as AlwaysOnTheHunt.com

Even if police are aware of these websites, some internationally based commercial sex advertisement and review websites have made it apparent that they won't cooperate with police. For example, in preparation for the FOSTA legislation passing and high likelihood of subsequent commercial sex advertisement displacement, the Brazil-based website administrator of USASexGuide.info has created a Beta version of a new commercial sex classified advertisement website called USAAdultClassifieds.info. In response to the prospect of a piece of legislation like FOSTA passing, he wrote, “Are you kidding? That’s great news for us...Unlike them (Backpage) we aren’t tied to the USA.” 

Believe it or not, websites like Backpage.com are not the real bad guys in this situation. 

Despite the criticism they have faced, Backpage.com and Craigslist.org are used as critical tools for law enforcement to catalyze investigations and rescues, and are largely cooperative with investigations. In fact, they join the ranks of countless mainstream websites and apps that have been used by sex traffickers, including Facebook, Snapchat, WeChat, Instagram and Twitter, to name a few. These websites do not knowingly allow sex traffickers to use their platforms, but they are targeted nonetheless.

If FOSTA is passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president, it will do nothing to prevent sex trafficking, prosecute offenders, or protect victims. It does, however, run the high risk of making these crimes more clandestine and inhibiting current law enforcement efforts.

Instead of vilifying third parties, it would stand to reason that a more practical approach to combating sex trafficking would be to facilitate communication and partnerships between these businesses and law enforcement. We already have laws in place to prosecute businesses that are complicit in sex trafficking operations. In order to truly combat sex trafficking, we must continue bringing this illicit activity out of the shadows and empower victims and witnesses with the resources to come forward and cooperate with investigations. 

Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in Criminology, Law and Society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She has served as an expert witness for Backpage.com.