US website owners risk jail for online sex trafficking

NEW YORK • Victims of sex trafficking could sue US websites used to sell their bodies online, experts said, as a new law signals a drive by Washington to clamp down on soaring Internet sex slavery.

The legislation, passed in April, aims to make it easier to prosecute social media platforms and websites that facilitate sex trafficking, although victims would be required to show that the Internet companies did so knowingly.

"If you traffic girls on websites, those girls can come after you," Mr Jason Matthews, anti-trafficking group ECPAT-USA's public policy director, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They can come to you individually, they can come to you in a class action suit," he said, referring to cases where a few plaintiffs sue on behalf of a group suffering the same injury.

Anti-slavery group Polaris - which runs the leading US trafficking hotline - says it has received reports of more than 22,000 sex trafficking cases in the United States over the last decade.

Experts say there are likely far more unreported cases.

Following years of lobbying by activists, the new law waters down a section of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which protects websites from liability for content posted by users and has been credited with fuelling decades of tech company growth.

  • 2,300 Number of state prosecutors now able to build cases to test the new legislation, which makes it easier to prosecute social media platforms and websites that facilitate sex trafficking.

The website - described by campaigners as the largest online US marketplace for child sex trafficking - had used the CDA to win numerous pimping-related lawsuits filed against it, arguing that it hosts rather than creates content.

The US authorities shut Backpage down days prior to the adoption of the new law, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (Fosta), and Backpage's founders were charged in a 93-count indictment, including knowingly facilitating prostitution.

The crackdown on online sex trafficking comes amid falling public trust in technology platforms, following Facebook's leak of users' personal data and failures by social media sites to block abusive content.

With some 2,300 state prosecutors now able to build cases to test the new law, tech companies would feel a "real danger", said Mr Lars Trautman, a former county prosecutor and criminal justice expert at the R Street Institute, a think-tank.

"You have to worry about each and every individual district attorney," he said.

Website owners and operators found guilty of contributing to sex trafficking can face 25 years in prison plus fines, while victims can also sue for damages in civil courts.

The legislation is likely to create fear - at least in the short term - even among websites that carry sex trafficking ads but are not focused on sexual services, he said.

Classifieds website Craigslist and social networking forum Reddit closed down sections of their sites that advertised and discussed prostitution, ahead of Fosta's adoption.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'US website owners risk jail for online sex trafficking'. Print Edition | Subscribe