The same Internet that we use to check e-mail and shop on-line has now become a tool used by pimps to increase their profits in the sex trade.
As the issue of human trafficking has continued to become more defined over the last decade, Washington state has been at the forefront in pioneering initiatives and other efforts to crack down on modern-day slavery and lend a voice to the voiceless.
In 2012, after recognizing that human trafficking transactions was big business on the Internet, several bills were introduced in the Washington state Legislature to crack down on the sexual exploitation of minors. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36th District), who has been working human-trafficking issues since the mid-1990s, sponsored Senate Bill 6251, which specifically targeted classified-ad site Backpage.com, making it a crime to knowingly publish an escort ad depicting a minor on-line or in print.
Backpage.com challenged the bill, signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire in March 2012, with a lawsuit. (Backpage.com was owned by Village Voice Media until September 2012, when the parent company cut ties with the on-line advertiser amid rising political and public outcry.) Backpage.com charged that the law was in violation of the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was created in 1996 in part to ensure that website owners would not be held responsible for the content posted by their users.
Backpage.com also argued that the bill was in violation of the U.S. Constitution, claiming that it jeopardized users’ rights to free speech.
A second bill, Senate Bill 6252, sponsored by Sen. Adam Kline (D-37th District), aimed to add the crimes of commercial sex abuse of a minor and the promotion of commercial sexual abuse of a minor to the offenses that could potentially constitute a pattern of criminal profiteering activity. Backpage.com also challenged this, as did the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital-rights group based in the United States.
In early December, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez struck down the law and ordered the state to pay $200,000 in legal fees to Backpage.com and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Despite initial disappointment, outgoing state Attorney General Rob McKenna remains optimistic.
“It didn’t change our approach to the issue,” he said. “That piece of legislation was just a sign to move on to another tool to put pressure on any on-line classified sites to pay attention to the ads being published, and to reject ads that are obviously for underage prostitution…and make them responsible if they refuse to do that.”
Seattle, which has repeatedly been identified as a hub for human trafficking, is of particular concern, specifically because of its accessibility to north/south routes via Interstate 5 and proximity to both Canada, Mexico and various ports used to illegally smuggle human cargo.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has also been heavily involved in getting the word out about human trafficking in the city. Spokesperson Aaron Pickus explained, “The Seattle Police Department had identified [Backpage.com] as an accelerant for the exploitation of children because it made it so much more easier to traffic children around the country for sex, and this was possible because they did not have policies in place to ensure that those who were placing ads on their website were 18 or older: You just had to check a box, in comparison to in-person age verification by The Stranger.”
McGinn, McKenna and Kohl-Welles have a history of team-centered leadership that has allowed them to work in partnership with one another, strengthening the resolve of their efforts.
“For years, we have worked with [Kohl-Welles] on domestic-violence issues,” McKenna said, “and now on human-trafficking issues, and I have strongly supported bills that she has brought forward…. It’s been a good partnership.”
He continued, “I’ve talked to Mayor McGinn about how much I appreciate his work in this area, and he continues to be a strong voice addressing Backpage.com.”
The Washington state leadership agrees that the next step in the fight against human trafficking is to amend the Communications Decency Act.
“At this point, what is going to be necessary is an amendment to the federal law, the Communications Decency Act, to make it clear that it can’t be used as a shield to hide behind when an on-line publisher is knowingly allowing publication of ads for human trafficking,” McKenna said. “Until that federal law is changed, it’s going to be very difficult to protect new statutes like the one that Sen. Kohl-Welles brought forward, because it’s vulnerable to a challenge.
“We have been misled for a long time by popular culture, the movies and TV, which falsely portray prostitution as involving a happy-go-lucky entrepreneur who is just out there to make a living,” he continued. “We now know from the research that it almost always involves a human-trafficking victim as being terrorized, physically and psychologically, to force them to sell their bodies.… We need to rethink prostitution and understand it as human trafficking.”
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