First, federal authorities seized the classified advertising website Backpage.com last week. Then, a 93-count indictment was unsealed, charging several of its top officials with facilitating prostitution and revealing details about victims including minors as young as 14.
Now, President Trump has signed new anti-sex-trafficking legislation into law on Wednesday. The law, which passed Congress with near unanimous bipartisan support, will give prosecutors stronger tools to go after similar sites in the future and suspend liability protections for internet companies for the content on their sites.
“You have endured what no person on earth should have to endure,” Mr. Trump said to victims of sex trafficking and their families who attended the signing ceremony in the Oval Office.
Before it was shut down, Backpage featured ads like one titled “Get freaky Tuesday,” according to the indictment. There were graphic descriptions of women of different ages and racial backgrounds. The grand jury charged that many of the ads also depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking.
The federal investigation into Backpage was long in the works before the legislation passed Congress last month. Craigslist removed its personal ads section shortly after the final vote. The new law will also let state law enforcement officials to pursue sites that knowingly host sex trafficking content, and will allow victims to sue such sites for damages.
“This isn’t just about Backpage. There are hundreds of others in this space, this online marketplace,” said Representative Ann Wagner, Republican of Missouri, who sponsored the bill in the House. “To see the impact without this legislation being signed into law yet, in terms of going after these cesspools of crime, is absolutely amazing.”
Backpage has long faced scrutiny from law enforcement and from Congress. Last year, the Senate issued a bipartisan investigative report saying that Backpage had altered ads on its site to remove evidence of human trafficking. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has said that Backpage was behind nearly three-quarters of all the public reports it received on child trafficking. The indictment, unsealed on Monday, also charged top Backpage officials with money laundering, and said the site also earned more than $500 million in prostitution-related revenue since it began in 2004.
Anti-trafficking groups, which have pushed for action against sites like Backpage, welcomed the news of the federal seizure and indictment. But the momentum to crack down on trafficking has also renewed concerns about the safety of sex workers from their advocates.
“Women’s March stands in solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement,” a spokeswoman for the organization explained on Tuesday. “We believe a world is possible in which no one is trafficked or enslaved, and in which sex workers are not criminalized and ostracized by the state and our movements.”
Some local groups are also mobilizing to push back against the law. Kate D’Adamo, an advocate for sex workers, is organizing a group to lobby elected officials in Washington on June 1. Very few people on Capitol Hill, she said, discuss the rights of sex workers. “We are trying to demystify the process for those who are trying to engage,” she said. “There’s not a district in the country that does not have people trading sex.”
Jessica Raven, who leads the Washington-based Collective Action for Safe Spaces and is part of the lobbying efforts, said that Backpage had been “essential” in helping sex workers do their jobs safely.
“Shutting down websites like Craigslist and Backpage pushes sex workers and sex trafficking victims into street-based sex work where they’re at greater risk of violence,” said Ms. Raven, who said she had survived homelessness and engaged in sex to survive as a teenager.
Sex workers have already begun figuring out other ways to do business in the days since Backpage was taken down, said Ms. D’Adamo. “This is a moment of incredible insecurity and people are just trying to figure out how to survive,” she said. “Any site that comes back up, no one is going to trust.”
But advocates for child sex-trafficking victims pushed back against the idea that sites like Backpage could act as a third-party safeguard for users. Carol Robles-Román, the former chief executive and president of Legal Momentum, has documented more than three dozen news reports of people who were murdered after being listed on Backpage.
Last year, Legal Momentum filed suit in Florida on behalf of a client who said she had been raped when she was in her 20s after being listed against her will on Backpage. “It was not safe for her,” said Ms. Robles-Román, who is now a legal adviser for anti-trafficking litigation and policy with the group. “To suggest that this is a safe vehicle is wrong.”
Several prominent social conservative leaders also supported the legislation, including Penny Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, a organization of conservative Christian women with half a million members nationwide.
“The President is standing up to Silicon Valley and with victims of abuse,” Ms. Nance said. “Evangelical women see this as ‘caring for the least of these’ and strongly supported this legislation to the point that we were able to thwart efforts by big money media to sink the bill.”
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