New law gives prosecutors, victims legal recourse against sex trafficking websites, owners

A bill signed April 11 by President Donald Trump will enable law enforcement to better combat online sex trafficking and has already led to a reduction in sex-related ads online.

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, nicknamed “FOSTA,” passed both houses of Congress with near unanimous support.

The law allows prosecutors to seek criminal charges against websites that promote and facilitate prostitution or sex trafficking. The bill’s wording asserts that “websites that promote and facilitate prostitution have been reckless in allowing the sale of sex trafficking victims and have done nothing to prevent the trafficking of children and victims of force, fraud and coercion.”

The bill will allow victims of sex trafficking from these sites to sue the sites directly for damages.

Seven of Alabama’s nine congressional representatives signed on to the legislation as co-sponsors: senators Richard Shelby and Doug Jones in the Senate and representatives Robert Aderholt, Bradley Byrne, Gary Palmer, Martha Roby and Terri Sewell in the House.

Immediate impact

The impact of the law was immediately apparent online.

Craigslist took down its personal pages, as did several other sites that previously featured online posts related to sex acts. Several companies stopped accepting sex-related advertising.

Signing of the legislation came just days after federal authorities shut down Backpage.com, a website that facilitated prostitution and sometimes advertised children as young as 14 for sex, according to a grand jury indictment.

Though the average person might not be aware of sites like Backpage, women served by The Wellhouse are very aware of them, said Maryhelen Kirkpatrick, development director for the Birmingham shelter for exploited women.

“Many of our ladies have been sold on websites, whether through pornography or selling sex on the sites,” Kirkpatrick said.

But she is cautiously optimistic FOSTA will make a difference.

“It is a huge victory but the scary thing is what’s out there next,” she said. “I don’t think this will force them to go back out to the streets but I think they will just come up with something more clever.”

Traylor Lovvorn, co-founder of Undone Redone, a Birmingham-based recovery ministry and ministry partner of The Alabama Baptist, said men he counsels also are very aware of such sites.

“In the digital age the ‘street corner’ is now digital,” he said.

Instead of going downtown and cruising to find a prostitute, individuals are going online. Website and app developers have denied responsibility for the use of the technology, Lovvorn said.

“Owners have said ‘we just put it up there’ but now they’re being held responsible. That’s the big shift,” he said. (TAB)