On Tuesday, Yvonne Ambrose, whose daughter, Desiree Robinson, was trafficked on Backpage.com and murdered, testified before the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing on bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.
The legislation is the result of a two-year Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) inquiry, led by Senators Portman and Claire McCaskill, which culminated in a report entitled “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking,” which found that Backpage.com knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and young girls and then covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake are among the bill’s 28 co-sponsors.
Ambrose began her testimony, “My name is Yvonne Ambrose. I am the mother of the late Desiree Robinson, and I’m asking you, the U.S. Senate, to change section 230 and support the bipartisan legislation to Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Not only for my baby, but for the protection of yours and others to come.”
“Desiree’s death should have never happened. The sex trafficking of minors should not be happening in our country. Taking advantage of our children on the internet has become such a common thing in our country that people turn the other cheek because they don’t want to believe this is actually happening right in their backyards,” continued Ambrose. “This is not a race, gender or economic problem, this is a people problem, a human problem. If there were stricter rules in place for postings on websites then my child would still be alive with me today.”
“Backpage.com and other companies like it must be held responsible for what they have created,” argued Ambrose. I’m sure when this act was put into place in 96, the Internet was in its infancy, and it was not intended to allow companies to legally sell children on the internet. But somehow, a dollar has become more important than a human life. If you’re going to fix this problem, fix it.”
Eric Goldman believes the law is overreach. A law professor at Santa Clara University, Goldman testified that the law would push online services to rely too much on filters to catch traffickers using coded language on countless sites, shutting down unrelated legitimate speech in the process, according to Cronkite News.
“SESTA will counterproductively lead to more socially harmful content and more online sex-trafficking promotions,” testified Goldman. “Online services can’t magically find and eradicate only the online sex-trafficking promotions. SESTA doesn’t limit itself to bad actors; it applies to the entire internet.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued in favor of the Act. He testified that the websites that act in good faith have nothing to fear in terms of frivolous lawsuits. “The broad exemption from any type of lawsuit for those who provide online services remains – it’s only if it’s sex trafficking,” Becerra said. “I’ve got to prove that it’s sex trafficking and that the defendants intended to violate that law. If we don’t have the tools, the only winners are those who go to the internet.”
“Unfortunately there are many more cases of victims being sold on Backpage.com. When we discover a product is harmful we seek to regulate it and mandate it’s use to minimize the risk. Backpage.com is using the law to protect their profits…the law needs to protect the victims not create loopholes for those who need our protection the most,” said Kathleen Winn, Executive Director of AZMEN|Project 25, an anti-human trafficking organization.