Why the U.S. Senate Must Pass FOSTA-SESTA to Fight Online Sex Trafficking

Ordering a Person for Sex Online Is as Easy as Ordering a Pizza

In the digital age, it is easier than ever before to buy and sell women and children for sex—frankly, it’s as easy as ordering a pizza. Sex traffickers can remain anonymous and make a lot more money, simply by moving their “business” from the street corner to the internet.

Classified advertising companies like Backpage are making massive profits from facilitating sex trafficking by allowing users to market and purchase women and children for sex on their platforms. These bad actor websites are shielded by federal law. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) Section 230, a law that has been misinterpreted by the courts, extends immunity to websites even if they engage in actual criminal conduct.

Why the U.S. Senate Must Pass FOSTA-SESTA to Fight Online Sex Trafficking

Backpage and Other Bad Actor Online Advertising Websites

While Backpage is not alone in its nefarious practices, a closer look at this website demonstrates why current law is woefully inadequate to protect victims of online sex trafficking.

National Center on Sexual Exploitation Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach Haley C. Halverson explains in the University of Rhode Island Dignity Journal that Backpage’s business model “appears to be constructed primarily around ads for sex.”

While the company claims to have “implemented strict content policies to prevent illegal activity,” and to ensure “inappropriate ad content [is] removed,” Halverson explains, “these measures were unconvincing to 51 Attorneys General (including Guam and American Samoa) who signed a letter publicly recognizing the high rates of sex trafficking occurring” on the website. She adds:

“Certainly, no company worth millions of dollars can claim absolute ignorance about its primary source of income, and therefore awareness of the likely illegal acts involved for website sections conspicuously labeled “escorts.” Yet the courts have steadfastly granted Backpage immunity.”

CDA Section 230 Fails to Hold the Kingpins of Sex Trafficking Accountable

Congress passed the CDA in 1996 in an effort to protect children from indecency online, while at the same time, section 230 of the CDA was specifically written to protect websites from being held responsible for content generated by third-party users it could not reasonably manage or police. The Supreme Court later invalidated the CDA, except for Section 230.

Section 230 also ensures that no provider or user is held civilly liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of objectionable material.

Furthermore, 230(c) entitled “Protection for ‘Good Samaritan’ Blocking and Screening of Offensive Material;” provides protection to interactive computer service providers (ICSPs) for private blocking and screening of offensive material. But Section 230 was never intended to prevent a state from criminally prosecuting a provider or user for facilitating sex trafficking, since such providers/users are not acting in good faith.

Yet, as it stands now, website operators providing the national operational superstructure for and profiting from sex trafficking, are a protected class of criminals. National Center on Sexual Exploitation Vice President of Research and Education Lisa L. Thompson explains in an op-ed in The Hill that arresting individual sex traffickers while giving websites like Backpage a get out of jail free card will never adequately address the scourge of sex trafficking:

“Locking up the individuals who, in state after state, traffic a steady supply of women and children for exploitation in the sex trade is absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, they represent the bottom feeders in the sexploitation food chain. To significantly curb sex trafficking, law enforcement needs the ability to bring down the individuals feasting at the top.”

Getting FOSTA-SESTA Over the Finish Line to Stop Online Sex Trafficking

Fortunately, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed legislation to hold websites like Backpage accountable, H.R. 1865 the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner. The House also passed a crucial amendment sponsored by Rep. Mimi Walters which incorporated the vital reforms contained in S. 1693, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), sponsored by Senators Portman, Blumenthal, and McCaskill.

Now all eyes turn to the Senate. Will our Senators side with the kingpins of sex trafficking or will they #ListenToSurvivors and pass H.R. 1865, the historic FOSTA-SESTA package which will restore to law enforcement vital tools for holding criminals accountable and sex trafficking victims their rights of civil action?

You Have the Power to Influence Your Senators’ Vote!

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has a simple form that takes less than a minute to fill out to ask your Senators to amend the law with the bill H.R. 1865, FOSTA-SESTA.

The Senate must vote to pass this vitally needed legislation, and support the fundamental principle that people are not objects to be sold online. You can learn more at endsexualexploitation.org/CDA.

3/22/18 Update: Senate Passed FOSTA-SESTA

Thanks to those who helped get the word out about FOSTA-SESTA. It passed in the Senate on March 21, 2018 by a vote of 97-2. To hear more about this incredible victory, check out NCOSE’s update article. 


The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) is the leading national organization exposing the links between all forms of sexual exploitation such as child sexual abuse, prostitution, sex trafficking, and the public health crisis of pornography. As the thread of pornography in the web of sexual exploitation is systemically overlooked by society, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has prominently advanced this issue as a central pillar of its projects in order to promote more holistic solutions.