WASHINGTON - The U.S. House of Representatives adopted a measure Tuesday that would close a legal loophole that has let websites like Backpage.com avoid criminal prosecution and lawsuits for facilitating sex trafficking.
The bill adopted by a 388 to 25 margin would clarify that existing communication laws don't protect websites that "unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and contribute to sex trafficking." It would also establish prison sentences of up to 25 years for some online sex traffickers.
Courts previously ruled the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shielded the websites from liability because they merely hosted third-party content and didn't create it.
The bill's sponsor, Missouri Republican Ann Wagner, said it would "empower victims, equip state and local prosecutors, and ensure websites can no longer traffic children with impunity."
"In recent years, sex trafficking has moved from the streets to the Internet," Wagner said on the House floor. "I find it hard to imagine that if a neighborhood business hosted a slave auction, the auctioneer would not be considered liable."
The lead Democrat on the bill, Rep. Joyce Beatty of Columbus, said it would provide "urgently needed" clarification of the law, while safeguarding Internet freedom.
All Ohio congress members backed the bill except for Miami County GOP Rep. Warren Davidson. Although Davidson was an original cosponsor of the bill and fully supports efforts to fight use of websites that facilitate sex trafficking, a spokesman said he believes the bill's current incarnation "blurs the lines to benefit trial lawyers instead of combating sex trafficking."
Davidson's spokesman noted the Justice Department has expressed several concerns about the bill, including the fact that its provisions would violate the U.S. Constitution's "Ex Post Facto Clause" by making behavior that occurred before its passage illegal.
A White House statement applauded the bill's passage but said the Trump administration "remains concerned" about parts the bill the Justice Department flagged.
"The President looks forward to continuing to work with Congress in order to hold people who participate in human trafficking accountable for their horrific crimes," the statement continued.
The House measure includes provisions of an anti-sex trafficking bill that Ohio Republican Rob Portman introduced in the Senate. His bill has been approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, but has not made it to the Senate floor.
An investigative report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Portman, found that Backpage.com was aware that sex traffickers and pimps used its services to promote child prostitution, and its claim to be a mere web host for ads "is a fiction."
Portman and the Democratic co-sponsor of his bill, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, released a statement that noted their bill "has 67 bipartisan supporters in the Senate, as well as strong support from trafficking survivors, anti-human trafficking advocates and law enforcement, 50 Attorneys General, the civil rights community, faith-based groups, the Internet Association and its member companies like Facebook and Google, and courts and judges who have made clear that it is Congress' responsibility to act to protect online sex trafficking victims."
Portman said "other priorities" have kept the full Senate from voting on his measure, and he hopes the House bill's adoption will prompt action.
"We know what the problem is, we know how federal law can be changed to address the problem and we really have to get it done," Portman said in a conference call with reporters.
Backpage.com fostered child prostitution, sex trafficking, U.S. Senate investigators conclude
The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations says Backpage.com was directly involved in fostering child prostitution.