Anti-human-trafficking bill targets websites that promote sex for sale

YORK COUNTY, S.C. — Rock Hill police Officer John Ranier has made several arrests for prostitution and he is always looking for possible victims of human trafficking.

"It's sad to see,” he said. “Some of these women are forced to do despicable acts. I'm not sure of the ages of the youngest ones I've seen, but we're talking about teenagers."

York County narcotics officers make anywhere from 20 to 30 prostitution arrests a year on Carowinds Boulevard. Hotels there often work with police to try to curb prostitution but the area at the state line remains a problem.

Many of those involved in the sex trade use websites like Craigslist and backpage to set up sexual encounters. Those websites have been protected under the Communications Act of 1934.  The law has largely allowed the online world to escape prosecution and even civil penalties because of protected free speech.

However, the U.S. Senate passed a bill this week that strips websites of their legal protection if they promote or facilitate prostitution or human trafficking.

It also gives victims the right to sue those websites for damages in civil court.

Penalties are up to 10 years in prison for promoting prostitution and 25 years for promoting human trafficking.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson told Channel 9 on Friday that the bill, when it becomes law, will open the door for prosecution.

"Some of these websites have hidden behind the federal law to prevent local and state authorities from going after them. Now they no longer can hide behind this law," Wilson said.

Opponents, such as many large tech firms, have spoken out against the bill, calling it censorship of the internet.  They believe it could lead to broader attempts at government regulation of online content.

"There is an issue of freedom of speech here, but this is a major issue," resident Austin Taylor said.

Craigslist reacted quickly this week to the threat of lawsuits and criminal charges. The website removed all personal ads and left a note for users telling them that it was because of the new law just passed by Congress.

President Donald Trump is expected to officially sign it into law.

Below is the content of the bill passed by the U.S. House in February and the Senate on Wednesday:

(Sec. 2) This bill expresses the sense of Congress that section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934 was not intended to provide legal protection to websites that unlawfully promote and facilitate prostitution and websites that facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims. Section 230 limits the legal liability of interactive computer service providers or users for content they publish that was created by others.

(Sec. 3) The bill amends the federal criminal code to add a new section that imposes penalties-a fine, a prison term of up to 10 years, or both on a person who, using a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, owns, manages, or operates an interactive computer service (or attempts or conspires to do so) to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.

Additionally, it establishes enhanced penalties-a fine, a prison term of up to 25 years, or both for a person who commits the offense in one of the following aggravating circumstances: (1) promotes or facilitates the prostitution of five or more persons, or (2) acts with reckless disregard that such conduct contributes to sex trafficking.

A person injured by an aggravated offense may recover damages and attorneys' fees in a federal civil action.

A court must order mandatory restitution, in addition to other criminal or civil penalties, for an aggravated offense in which a person acts with reckless disregard that such conduct contributes to sex trafficking.

A defendant may assert, as an affirmative defense, that the promotion or facilitation of prostitution is legal in the jurisdiction where it was targeted.

(Sec. 4) The bill amends the Communications Act of 1934 to declare that section 230 does not limit: (1) a federal civil claim for conduct that constitutes sex trafficking, (2) a federal criminal charge for conduct that constitutes sex trafficking, or (3) a state criminal charge for conduct that promotes or facilitates prostitution in violation of this bill.

The amendments apply regardless of whether alleged conduct occurs before, on, or after this bill's enactment.

(Sec. 5) The bill amends the federal criminal code to define a phrase related to the prohibition on sex trafficking. Currently, it a crime to knowingly benefit from participation in a venture that engages in sex trafficking. This bill defines "participation in a venture" to mean knowingly assisting, supporting, or facilitating a sex trafficking violation.

(Sec. 6) A state may file a federal civil action to enforce federal sex trafficking violations.

(Sec. 7) This section states that this bill does not limit federal or state civil actions or criminal prosecutions that are not preempted by section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934.

(Sec. 8) The Government Accountability Office must report to Congress on information related to damages and mandatory restitution for aggravated offenses under this bill.