Our recent reporting on sex trafficking raised use of websites that allegedly tolerate child sex trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.. 73% of children trafficked for prostitution are found on a site they identify as Backpage. How can that be? In part because of a 20-year old law that protects internet free speech and by consequence, websites used for sex trafficking. Lisa Fletcher has the story.
Andrea Benson: There were girls that were really, really young, but honestly, that's what the johns want and so it's not something that we even thought about at all.
When Andrea Benson worked as a prostitute in Portland, Oregon, she knew that the clients wanted their girls young.
Andrea Benson: Even when I was in the life, I put that my age was 19 and guys would just be like, 'well you don't look like you're 19. You look like you're younger. You look like my granddaughter. You look like my daughter.'
Benson claims she was trafficked on Backpage, an online classified advertising site.
Carol Robles-Roman: This is a business model that makes $9 million dollars a month using this exploitative model.
Carol Robles-Roman heads Legal Momentum, a group suing Backpage on behalf of a "Jane Doe" client who claims to have been trafficked on Backpage, and two other advocacy groups who support victims of sex trafficking, including children.
Carol Robles-Roman: These are kids. These are young kids, these are minors and there's no justification, there's no way to defend it.
Lisa Fletcher: No one alleges that Backpage is running a prostitution or trafficking ring.
Sen. Claire McCaskill: They did not turn away ads selling children.
However, in January, a Senate Homeland Security subcomittee on investigations concluded that Backpage knowingly facilitated online sex trafficking. Among the findings: Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing its "adult" ads. And Backpage knows that it facilitates prostitution and child sex trafficking.
Carol Robles-Roman: There should not be a vehicle that has made the trafficking of kids so easy, like hey, do you want to order a pizza sure, hey do you want to order a kid? Just as easy.
A 20 year old law has made it difficult for critics to shut Backpage or any similar site down. Tucked into the "Communications Decency Act," is a short provision- known as "Section 230" -that shields websites and internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Backpage from liability over objectionable content posted by users.
Emma Llanso: Section 230 is really one of the cornerstones of free speech online.
Emma Llanso works with the Center for Democracy and Technology.. which is funded, in part, by Silicon Valley to prevent restrictions on the internet.
Emma Llanso: If I were, for some reason, to tweet something defamatory about you, you could of course sue me for saying something defamatory, but you couldn't sue Twitter for having published that defamation worldwide, and that's a really really key protection. If companies were vulnerable to lawsuits over the content of the speech that their users are posting every day, they would very quickly basically be sued out of existence.
Twitter was sued in 2016, for allegedly providing material support for Islamic extremists who killed two American contractors, but the case was dismissed using protections in section 230. According to the congressional report, Backpage tried to appear as though it was fighting trafficking by editing out code words for minors like "fresh" and "new to town" - to make the ads look quote "cleaner than ever". But congressional investigators found Backpage was actively allowing the traffickers to operate, and pocketing the ad revenue.
Carol Robles-Roman: By fixing the ad you don't cure the criminality. There's still a kid that's being listed online.
Lisa Fletcher:? What about these, this civil liberties and the free speech advocates who say, 'If you were to win your case would have very significant implications on free speech, very broadly across the globe.'
Carol Robles-Roman: ?Yeah, there would be implications on free speech. You cannot sell children online for sex. That's the implication. The First Amendment does not protect criminal conduct.
Lisa Fletcher: Critics of yours will say this is just a bunch of legal acrobatics that protect pimps that protect traffickers while kids are being raped.
Emma Llanso: These are a bunch of legal standards that have existed in our country for 20 years to protect the ability for all of us to use the internet for freedom of speech and access to information. We would not have the incredible array of online publications, social media sites, search engines other websites that we have without a law like section 230.
There is a bill working its way thru Congress that would amend the broad protections of Section 230 and hold publishers accountable for child trafficking. We reached out to 'Backpage' but they declined to provide comment.