The Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill Wednesday afternoon that increases penalties on websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.
The bill, known as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, passed the Senate 97-2 and modifies language from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that insulated websites from liability for content that promoted sex trafficking on their sites.
Both Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, voted in favor.
The bill allows the government to prosecute websites that knowingly promote sex trafficking, as well as allowing users to sue. According to GovTrack, it would be the first bill to become law that allows users to sue websites over their content.
“This bipartisan legislation gives the victims of these crimes the justice they deserve against the criminals that carry out these dreadful acts,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a news release. “We need to do everything we can to combat sex trafficking, and this legislation that will soon be law is a sensible step in the right direction for the victims.”
The bill is a result of a January 2017 report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into Backpage.com, a user-generated classified ads website that found the site’s top executives knew of widespread sex trafficking ads on the site.
The review found that ad postings for child prostitution on the site were actively “sanitized” by the website, removing key words that indicated child prostitution but not flagging the advertisement itself.
After attempting to close that loophole, a new filtering system alerted users to keywords that were banned, such as “teen,” and users could edit the post to remove the keyword.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill. As law, the legislation imposes a fine or a prison term of up to 10 years, or both, on anyone who uses or operates a website that knowingly promotes prostitution. A prison term of up to 25 years is included for someone involved in prostituting five or more people.
Since 2012, five people have been charged for human trafficking in La Plata County, according to Rocky Mountain PBS. Four were charged in La Plata County last year.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation also arrested three people in Grand Junction in October 2017 during a nationwide sex trafficking sting.
Data from Human Trafficking Hotline shows that Colorado has seen drastic increases in human trafficking in the last two years. In 2016, there were 122 human trafficking cases reported to the state, up from 79 in 2015. There were 110 cases reported to the Human Trafficking Hotline in 2017.
Nationally, there were 8,524 cases reported to Human Trafficking Hotline in 2017.
Opponents of the bill are concerned it makes websites and web providers responsible for the posts of third-party users, leading to increased censorship. The bill raises free speech concerns for opponents, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which advocates civil liberties in the digital world.
“Since it would be difficult if not impossible for platforms ... to review every post individually for sex trafficking content, platforms would have little choice but to adopt overly restrictive content moderation practices,” EFF wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in the Senate and Ann Wagner, R-Mo., in the House. The House of Representatives passed the bill on Feb. 27, 388-25, with Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, voting in favor.
“If we are ever to completely stop this modern day slave trade and provide justice for those who have been abused, we must first close the existing loopholes that are allowing individuals who assist and perpetrate these illegal crimes online to go unpunished,” Tipton said in a new release after House passage.
Andrew Eversden is an intern with The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.