Why an Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill Isn't a No-Brainer
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In our editorial meeting this week, we found ourselves, as we often do, smashing headlong into the complexities of a story. And this time we coined a term to describe it. It was a brainer, as it the opposite of a no-brainer. For instance, doing anything you can to try to put an end to the horror of child sex trafficking, that’s a no-brainer. Some websites make despicable bank by selling children as sex slaves, as depicted in the chilling 2017 documentary I Am Jane Doe.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The most popular internet site for escorts is called Backpage.com, where authorities say underage girls are sold for sex.
NIC McKINLEY, DELIVER FUND FOUNDER: Backpage is the Walmart of human trafficking.
JOHN DUCOFF, EXEC. DIR. COVENANT HOUSE, PA: It’s an incredibly profitable business.
NACOLE, MOTHER OF “J.S.”: We will never be the family we were before she was sold on that website.
TRAFFICKING VICTIM “J.S.”: We need someone to give us a fighting chance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I Am Jane Doe spurred a national awakening, first in the media.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In 2016, the National Human Trafficking Hotline counted 5,500 sex trafficking cases. Now, of those, 1,379 involved juveniles. So think about that for a moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then, in Hollywood, engaging such celebrities as Seth Meyers and Amy Schumer.
SETH MEYERS: It can no longer be legal to advertise children for sex, period.
AMY SCHUMER: This is the dark side of technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That campaign culminated last month in legislation, when two bipartisan bills, SESTA, the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex-Traffickers Act of 2017 and its House equivalent, FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex-Trafficking Act sailed through Congress. It was a real no-brainer.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Congress clearly said, we want to protect the young people in our country, many of whom are doped, kidnapped, forced, beaten into sex slavery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Democrat Carolyn Maloney is the cosponsor of the bill and co-chair and cofounder of the House Human Trafficking Caucus.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: This is really transformational legislation and I believe historic and will literally save lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It cleared away the legal roadblocks that for too long had shielded trafficking sites.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: We passed two incredible bills that allowed victims and their families to sue the “Backpages” of the world that were selling their children online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But this is where things become a bit more of a brainer because SESTA-FOSTA weakens the core provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, Section 230, which protected digital platforms from being sued for the illegal speech of their users, thus enabling the internet to innovate and thrive.
ELLIOT HARMON: It’s definitely made a huge difference in making the internet a place where people can communicate with each other and share ideas with each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Elliot Harmon works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
ELLIOT HARMON: For example, the company that runs your email service or the company that provides you space to host your website or a social media platform like Twitter and Facebook, Section 230 says that if you say something in one of those spaces that is unlawful then it's you who should be held responsible for that and not the platform itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Section 230 is why Twitter doesn't have to preapprove every tweet, why Wikipedia can exist at all. This story is a brainer because it’s Section 230 that has mucked up lawsuits against sex trafficking websites like Backpage. Representative Carolyn Maloney.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: The internet should not be used to help foster crimes. Oftentimes, the crimes are the cruelest on the youngest in our society. I mean, I have talked to people who came to this country to, quote, “work in a hotel” where they took their passports, tore ‘em up and threw ‘em in a basement, where they were used as sex slaves until they figured out how to escape. I am thrilled with this transformative historic legislation, which will give law enforcement the tools that they're asking for, to enforce the law, and really giving a protection to families and young people that have been exploited and abused beyond any human belief.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And while the bill hasn't yet reached the president’s desk, the tech industry has begun to shiver in anticipation of the death of Section 230.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Looking to make a love connection? Why you won't be able to find it tonight on Craigslist.
ELLIOT HARMON: Craigslist taking down its Personals site, I think that that's a pretty good example of the risks that we’re talking about here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: EFF’S Elliot Harmon.
ELLIOT HARMON: When this massive increase in liability essentially forces platforms to kind of put their thumb on the scale and err on the side of more censorship, it’s not gonna be a matter of removing specific posts. It's going to be a matter of removing entire websites and entire sections of websites. The increase in liability essentially takes the kind of moderation that should be a scalpel and turns it into a hammer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is that because many websites [LAUGHS] or most of them don't have the ability to automatically filter in a scalpel-like way? Congress is asking them to develop that kind of technology but what exists is not good enough, at least not yet.
ELLIOT HARMON: Yes, you’re completely right. There is this saying that was actually coined by a tech journalist named Mike Masnick, “Nerd Harder.”
And the Nerd Harder problem, that’s whenever Congress thinks that it can affect a huge improvement in technology by passing laws requiring [LAUGHS] technologists to make those massive improvements in technology. Most of the time, it doesn't work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which means that sites are cutting off access or shuttering altogether, rather than contend with the liability they might face if they miss something illegal, especially the smaller sites that can't afford the human monitors or lawyers that could keep them afloat.
ELLIOT HARMON: Everyone is not silenced equally. The people who get the short end of the stick, as it were, is people who are marginalized in other parts of public life, too
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congresswoman Maloney doesn't see it that way.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: WordPress.com reports of commercial sex- related advertising sites removed, Google reports of publicly- shared commercial sex-related advertising deleted, Reddit: new policies banning sale of sex acts and drugs, VerifyHim, advertising newsreel gone, Nightshift shut down to review policies, the Erotic Review, Yelp of the sex trade, where men rate their experiences with trafficking victims, US boards were shut down and CityVibe shut down, full shutdown. [LAUGHS] I’d say this is all great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Harmon says that along with the ads and the scurrilous message boards, there are those that share valuable information that enable isolated vulnerable groups to share experiences, like the internet always has, along with all the awful stuff. That’s how the internet was designed, intentionally. And he says that with different rules it could have been as conglomerated as traditional media. It could be like cable TV.
ELLIOT HARMON: When you look at it in retrospect, it's easy to think of it all as having a kind of air of inevitability to it, the internet being this awesome place where people can gather and talk with each other and even sometimes talk with each other about controversial things. It is, in fact, just as easy to imagine the internet without these protections and an internet in which only the very largest corporations can play and an internet that, instead of being of this amazing place where we can communicate and share ideas with each other and fall in love with each other, instead, being much more one directional.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Harmon says that SESTA-FOSTA endangers free speech.
Kate D'Adamo, an advocate for sex workers and sex trafficking victims, says it actually threatens people’s lives.
KATE D’ADAMO: What this does, it actually just drives the sex trade underground, and that includes everyone in the sex trade, regardless of their circumstances, and that includes trafficking victims. It forces people to trade sex into other venues, including street-based work, including brothel-based work, making people more vulnerable to exploitation but also to violence and to HIV and STI transmission.
Also, when you make an entire community that much more precarious, it gets a lot harder to do things like enforce your boundaries. This bill didn’t come with anything that addresses why people are exploited but what it did was push people into areas and venues where they’re more likely to be exploited.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: It bans illegal activity. If it’s illegal, it is banned from the internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congresswoman Maloney says the bill is expressly concerned with the lives of trafficking victims, not those of adult sex workers. But D’Adamo says that being forced into the shadows hurts everyone.
KATE D’ADAMO: Yeah. The internet brought much more visibility. If you were being trafficked on the internet, you are much more identifiable to law enforcement, to outreach officers, even to family members. If you have to move to a brothel or a massage parlor, it’s going to be much more difficult to not only identify them but to figure out how to access that person and then how to do post-conviction work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think people actually imagine though, Kate, I mean, the people who pushed this through? They’re imagining a nightmare scenario but one that does exist, where people are tricked into coming into this country from somewhere else. They’re underage. Maybe they’ve been sold by their parents. And they’re, you know, left in a room until their services are needed, and they are already isolated.
KATE D’ADAMO: Oh, absolutely. I think you’re completely right.
I’m never going to impugn the intentions of the people that passed this bill. I think that nuancing or understanding of these situations is a cornerstone of more effective anti-trafficking work because the story that is in most people's heads is often not reflective of even most people in trafficking situations. If we actually empowered sex workers to be able to discuss best practices, that means you're empowering the people who are vulnerable to trafficking and the people closest to trafficking victims.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: D’Adamo says that the internet is an easy target but the root causes of trafficking require a different kind of solution.
KATE D’ADAMO: Trafficking is absolutely a crime that preys on vulnerability. If we want to say, you know, is this going up or going down, we have to look at things like what is poverty right now> What's happening to people who are migrating? What does it mean to access living-wage labor because know what the root causes are, and if we want to address trafficking, we actually have to address those. The services available to people identified as survivors -- is an embarrassment. Very often I’m talking to service providers who say, I did everything for this client and they’re still supporting a family of six on a $10-an- hour job. There are bills sitting in Congress right now that actually would address improvement of services, expansion of training, addressing the convictions that people come away with after leaving many of these situations. And they’re stalled. They’re not moving.
REP. CAROLYN MAHONEY: We’re certainly trying.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congresswoman Maloney.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: It is incredibly difficult to pass legislation that costs money now, with a--almost $20 trillion debt, but we're trying. We have 50 beds that I know of that are funded now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: SESTA-FOSTA, which costs almost nothing, no increase in funding for beds for trafficking victims or for law enforcement or for homelessness, is a comparatively light risk that to its backers seems like a simple way to undermine the child sex trafficking marketplace by sending more of the guilty to jail.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: It is the most profitable crime. It's more profitable than selling arms or selling drugs, and you can sell the human body over and over and over again until they, they die. So this bill is really going after the johns and the pimps and the traffickers who exploit young people for their financial benefit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the lack of beds means that they could wind up right back in it.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: I've heard terrible stories where young girls have escaped, they have absolutely no place to go, and they end up in some stranger’s home. They, they just have no place to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And some have suggested that SESTA-FOSTA will make it harder to find them and the people who exploit them. Here’s Oregon Senator Ron Wyden who co-authored Provision 230.
SENATOR RON WYDEN: I fear it will send these evil people who traffic beyond the grasp of law enforcement to the shadowy corners of the Dark Web, a place where everyday search engines don’t go, and it’s going to be even easier for criminals to find a safe haven for their extraordinarily evil acts.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, I would say that 50 attorney generals across the country disagree because they all wrote to Congress in support of this bill.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another brainer: The bill could make it easier to jail perpetrators and it could make it harder to find them.
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KATE D’ADAMO: I think that what’s happened with these bills is really indicative of something bigger. It is where the people most impacted by this bill were written out of the conversation and became the collateral damage of good intentions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ridding the world of sex trafficking is something on which we can all agree, but the best intentions can lead to unexpected outcomes. A plan to help some may harm others, usually the people we tend to look past, perhaps because to see them would be to see how ill-equipped we are to root out a problem we’d much rather strike out with the stroke of the pen. It’s a brainer, all right.
Moments before we were posting this episode, we learned that the website Backpage.com and affiliated sites was taken down and seized by federal law enforcement authorities.
Coming up, is Martin Luther King as a model of masculinity for young black men past his prime?
MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: The image of King as a moral authority has been wielded against black youth in all of the subsequent generations since his assassination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.