Unexpected Hindrance to Removing Sex Ads

Top law enforcement officers across the country are pushing Congress for greater authority to go after a booming online industry that hosts ads for child sex traffickers. But they are encountering opposition from an unexpected source.

A task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of conservative lawmakers and businesses that crafts model legislation for states, has drafted a resolution for adoption by state legislators urging Congress to reject the attorneys general’s request, warning that it could discourage investment in new internet services.

Some attorneys general say the concerns are unfounded. “It’s not like we’re trying to hurt free speech. We’re trying to protect children who are being sold for sex,” said Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican. Of particular concern to state attorneys general are online classifieds, such as those hosted by Backpage.com, which advertise “adult” services for strippers and escorts with veiled references to prostitution. Investigators say that pimps offering children are using the sites, making it easier for pedophiles to buy sex.

A 1996 federal law generally shields website operators from liability for content posted by users. Last month, a U.S. district judge blocked a newly enacted New Jersey law against advertising sexual services by minors. Judges in Tennessee and Washington have issued similar rulings. Frustrated by such failures, 47 state attorneys general signed a letter this summer to the leaders of the U.S. House and Senate commerce committees urging them to make a two-word tweak to the federal law to allow the prosecutions. Congress has yet to act. When “corporations are knowingly generating revenue from what is widely or universally viewed as criminal conduct, the (federal law) should not stand as a shield for corporate revenues,” said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat who was the lead signatory of the letter. Advocates for online businesses said the legal change could force start-up companies to keep track of thousands of specific state laws and could lead to government intrusion into other Internet areas.

Attorneys general contend that child sex trafficking is expanding through the online classified sites. They pointed to numerous ads this year, including one by a Miami pimp who marketed a 13-year-old girl with his name tattooed across her eyelids to mark her as his property. Shared Hope International, a nonprofit group that seeks to prevent sex trafficking, has tracked 232 criminal cases in 45 states involving more than 300 children who were marketed on Backpage.com since 2010.

Learn more at David A. Lieb’s Duluth News Tribune article: Conservatives oppose attack on sex ads.

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