Washington, D.C. – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) today delivered the following remarks during the House Judiciary Committee’s markup of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (H.R. 1865).
Chairman Goodlatte: Today I’m pleased the Committee is considering H.R. 1865, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017. This bill provides federal, state, and local prosecutors the tools needed to combat online sex trafficking.
In the past few years, we’ve seen online sex trafficking continue to grow at an alarming rate. Despite great efforts by law enforcement, young children and women are being advertised online brazenly for sex trafficking. Furthermore, despite the fact prostitution is nearly universally illegal in the United States, online prostitution markets operate with virtual impunity. These markets provide an unregulated venue where sex trafficking flourishes. It is no secret that gangs and organized crime family members are using this platform to sell women and children like chattel – to profit off of their misery, over and over again. The websites providing these platforms, without any regard for the victims being sold on it, must be held accountable.
Backpage.com is the most recognized name among these websites, and Backpage will certainly be held accountable. We know there is currently a federal grand jury convened in Arizona hearing evidence on Backpage. There are also numerous civil cases pending against Backpage – and while initially, these claimants had been denied relief in the 1st Circuit, facts that came to light through a thorough Congressional investigation have now placed these claimants in a strong position. But Congress cannot be tasked with investigating every website involved in operating these markets. We must ensure law enforcement has the tools to investigate and prosecute these websites, so that these bad-actor websites are punished criminally and victims receive restitution, and to unearth facts which may be pled in civil suits.
In crafting this legislation, we consulted with local prosecutors, and also with the Department of Justice. There are significant difficulties in prosecuting websites like Backpage for knowing facilitation of sex trafficking, since these kinds of advertisements rarely, if ever, will say the person advertised is a “victim of sex trafficking.”
A more effective approach in combating these websites is to charge them with the facilitation and promotion of prostitution. H.R. 1865 therefore makes it a crime to use an interstate facility with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution.
The connection between prostitution and human trafficking is undeniable. Studies show that countries with legalized prostitution are associated with higher human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited. A study from 2003 in the Journal of Trauma found that 89 percent of women involved in prostitution wanted to escape. Prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing and fuels sex trafficking.
Significantly, H.R. 1865 provides an enhanced punishment for websites that purposely promote prostitution, in reckless disregard of the fact that people are being trafficked on their platforms.
We also must ensure that local and state governments are able to use these tools, as many of the flourishing websites are regional. These websites are also too numerous to place these prosecutions solely in the hands of federal prosecutors. To that end, H.R. 1865 makes explicit that state criminal laws which punish the same conduct underlying this new federal crime may be enforced without running afoul of the Communications Decency Act. The bill also explicitly permits state criminal laws to be enforced which punish the same conduct underlying the federal sex trafficking statute, in the event any local prosecutor may find it useful.
Finally, the bill creates a new civil recovery provision under which victims may bring claims. Given that it may be difficult for victims to show that a website knowingly facilitated sex trafficking, this new provision tracks the elements of the new crime where a claimant would only have to show purposeful prostitution and that the website’s reckless disregard in promoting prostitution contributed to the claimant’s becoming a victim of sex trafficking.
I commend Congresswoman Ann Wagner for introducing this bill and for her steadfast leadership in combating sex trafficking and protecting victims. I urge my colleagues to support this important legislation.