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Cybersecurity & Standards, Free Expression

Listening to the Experts on Human Trafficking

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering two pieces of legislation that would help combat sex trafficking in the United States. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, sponsored by Senators Cornyn, Feinstein, and others would (among other things) help to prevent the prosecution of victims of sex trafficking for prostitution offenses. The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act, sponsored by Senators Cornyn, Klobuchar, McCain, and Blumenthal (among others) would enact a National Strategy for Combating Human Trafficking for increased enforcement at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels against those who buy and sell children for sex. In an impressive display of bipartisanship, the Senate’s 20 women members are calling for action from their colleagues across the political spectrum. A number of senators at Tuesday’s hearing expressed their deep commitment to meaningful action to address child trafficking in the United States.

As these bills enter committee markup on Thursday, it’s important that they remain focused on essential victim-centered reforms and providing law enforcement with necessary prosecution and prevention resources – not on measures that infringe on the First Amendment. Congress has recently considered anti-trafficking measures that would raise significant threats to free expression, privacy, and innovation online.  These proposals, including the SAVE Act introduced by Seators Kirk and Feinstein last session, and a similar bill that passed the House earlier this year, would expose online content hosts to potential federal criminal liability for text, images, video, and other content posted by their users. In a recent joint statement, CDT and a coalition of free expression and privacy organizations, trade associations, and law professors explained that creating federal criminal liability for website hosting or publishing of content would be overly broad, unconstitutional, and counterproductive.

At yesterday’s hearing , Senator Feinstein inveighed against the websites that traffickers use to post sex ads, but witnesses at the hearing provided a more nuanced perspective. Advocates described efforts to remove ads from Craigslist or Backpage, only to see them migrate to other sites—and warned that taking down an ad or shutting down a website did not have the same impact as punishing perpetrators who buy and sell children for sex. Victims’ advocate Malika Saada Sar of Human Rights for Girls told the committee that “[t]here’s a culture of impunity,” and these ads will continue to move from site to site until we address the demand side of the equation: “They are not afraid of purchasing a child because we are not arresting and prosecuting buyers of children.”

Iowa’s top Human Trafficking Investigator Officer Michael Ferjack testified about the complex relationship that law enforcement has with websites that host user-generated ads, calling them “one of the best tools that law enforcement currently has available” for investigating human trafficking. Officer Ferjack noted the “ongoing debate within the law enforcement community as to the value of these sites in terms of their intelligence that they offer to law enforcement,” and requested that Senators “move cautiously” in considering any sort of action.

CDT joins this call for caution.  There are measures Congress can take right now to stop human trafficking. Congress should not let problematic Internet proposals impede that momentum.