Attorneys General Want Congress to Combat Sex Ad Websites

Yet Internet advocates bemoan changes to Communications Decency Act.

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The National Association of Attorneys General is urging Congress to reform the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

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In a bygone era, street corners were the place to shop for an illegal, late-night rendezvous. Today, people don't even have to leave their house to search for a prostitute.

But as johns have enjoyed the confidentiality of the Internet, so have the predators looking to engage in sexual exploits with underage victims. Under current law, the websites that host the advertisements for such encounters cannot be charged with a crime. That may be changing.

The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) is urging Congress to reform the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) that prevents law enforcement agencies from going after classified ad groups, like Backpage, that provide a space where pimps advertise underage victims of human trafficking. Specifically, they want to reform a section of the act that protects Internet companies who advertise "offensive material."

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According to a Aim, a consulting group that specializes in classified advertising, sites like Backpage have grown substantially since 2010 and have earned millions since Craigslist abandoned its escort service advertisements. Despite pressures to abandon sex ads, online classified hosts have argued they help police search for pimps and trafficking networks and have stepped up their efforts to keep the sites void of underage girls.

"It's ironic that the CDA, which was intended to protect children from indecent material on the Internet is now used as a shield by those who intentionally profit from prostitution and crimes against children," a letter from NAAG to Congress reads. "As online advertising of child prostitution goes unchecked, sex traffickers are able to expand their business, magnifying the scope of the problem."

The pressure for Congress to reform the law comes as courts have taken a broad interpretation of the law. In a 2010 civil case, a 14-year-old in Missouri tried to sue the website for hosting explicit photos of her and contributing to her plight as sex trafficking victim. The case was dismissed because of the exception in the Communications Decency Act.

But reforming the Communications Decency Act could have unintended consequences. Already, Internet rights groups are rising up against attempts to amend the law.

Kevin Bankston, the free expressions director at the Center Democracy and Technology warns that making Internet companies liable for what third parties post on its pages could put other sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at risk.

"Crimes are going to happen on the Internet, and sometimes those crimes will be pretty awful, but the answer to that is not to break the Internet," Bankston says. "This proposal would break the Internet as we know it. It would make it impossible for Facebook and Twitter and others to host user-based content without facing crippling liability."

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Bankston asserts that the specific section of the Communications Decency Act under scrutiny has given legal certainty to Internet businesses that has been a big factor in spurring "vibrant growth" in the Internet economy.

"It is a long standing and carefully crafted protection that has enabled online services to host massive quantities of user-generated content," he says.

Even human trafficking groups like the Polaris Project, who say they have received hundreds of calls alerting them that underage victims are being sold over the Internet, are carefully wading into the debate.

"Polaris Project is exploring the recent proposal from the states' Attorneys General, and we appreciate that they are taking the issue of online sex trafficking head on," says Brad Myles, the CEO of Polaris Project. "Ultimately, if we want to effectively disrupt online sex trafficking, we must find a way to pressure Backpage to shut down their adult escort ads immediately."

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