Forty seven of the nation’s state attorneys general want Congress to give state governments more authority to investigate online advertising platforms pimps use to traffic children for sex.
The state law enforcement officials are targeting online classifieds, such as those hosted by Backpage.com, which make it easier for pedophiles to buy sex. According to Shared Hope International, a nonprofit group that seeks to prevent sex trafficking, pimps have marketed more than 300 children across 45 states on Backpage.com since 2010.
Prosecutors have brought charges against pimps, prostitutes, and customers who use the online platform. But they haven’t been able to pursue the website itself because of a 1996 federal law that shields website operators from liability for content posted by users.
In an effort to change that, the attorneys general signed a letter this summer urging Congress to amend the Communications Decency Act so state governments can investigate the online classified-ad platforms.
The letter asks Congress to add just two words—or State—to the law: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to impair the enforcement of section 223 or 231 of this title, chapter 71 (relating to obscenity) or 110 (relating to sexual exploitation of children) of Title 18, or any other Federal or State criminal statute.”
But the initiative faces unlikely opposition from conservative state lawmakers who fear a government clamp-down on Internet businesses. The tension highlights the difficulty of policing an online marketplace that has rapidly evolved under a generally hands-off government approach.
“[I]t could have quite a chilling effect on new companies starting up online … or just the expression of free speech,” North Dakota State Rep. Blair Thoreson told Forum News Service. Thoreson leads a multi-state task force to oppose the request. Some say his concerns about free speech and commerce are unfounded. “It’s not like we’re trying to hurt free speech,” said Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican. “We’re trying to protect children who are being sold for sex.”
Other critics say changing the law might make it harder to punish child traffickers. Elizabeth McDougall, the general counsel for Dallas-based Backpage.com, said that if U.S. website operators are forced to shut down adult classifieds, many of those ads simply would shift to websites hosted in foreign countries that may not cooperate with U.S. authorities: “It would be an ineffective and counterproductive measure to help combat domestic minor sex trafficking.”