Home » William D King: The CARES Act: What does it mean for sex trafficking victims?

William D King: The CARES Act: What does it mean for sex trafficking victims?

William D King

The online landscape has created challenges for law enforcement when attempting to protect children from sexual predators says, William D King. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) was written with the best of intentions in mind, but it is clear that changes need to be made to better protect victims of sex trafficking. As Congress works through legislation regarding sex trafficking online, it is important lawmakers consider the implications this legislation may have on children exploited for commercial sex acts. This article will discuss what several bills currently before Congress mean for child victims of prostitution and possible unintended consequences that may arise if they are passed into law.

The problem:  

Online advertisement networks have created a massive online market for child sex trafficking. While most people understand that these sites provide an outlet to sell and purchase images of children being sexually exploited, most do not know that these same websites also offer an “adult” section where buyers can post requests for children who are available for commercial sex acts in the area. According to former FBI agent Gregory Crabb, “the vast majority of [online] advertisements involve prostitution or someone selling them for money.” Not only has the growth of such sites proliferated this exchange, but they’ve also improved their ability to advertise with impunity by utilizing websites like Craigslist and Backpage.com instead of street corners and newspaper classifieds because it is much more difficult for law enforcement to shut them down due to the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

Despite efforts by non-profit organizations and online activists, Backpage.com continues to be the market leader in online sex trafficking. In fact, according to a 2012 study by Shared Hope International, 100% of child sex trafficking cases analyzed involved Backpage.com. That same study found that Backpage.com’s adult ads generated $79 million in revenue during 2010 alone, with $24 million of that total attributable solely to commercial sex advertisements involving children. Another report issued this past March by The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children also showed tremendous growth in this sector since 2007 when it first started tracking the trend. They found that while overall credit card spending on the site increased by 557% between January 2007 and February 2011, commercial sex advertisements jumped a staggering 1,000%.

The Communications Decency Act:  

Known as Section 230 of the CDA, this section is designe to protect online publishers from suing. For disseminating information that has been deem defamatory or obscene. Specifically, it states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, it limits liability for those who operate third-party websites. Even if they are hosting illegal material. By allowing them to argue they merely offer a forum for the material and did not provide or create it.

The following excerpt from study conduct. The Urban Institute illustrates how this provision has been in use to protect sex traffickers:  

“As one prosecutor stated, ‘If you shut down [a website] but you don’t get the credit card companies and banks that were funding them, within three days they’ll be back online.’ Only shutting down a site is not enough says, William D King. Law enforcement must also target the financial infrastructure of commercial sex advertisements. If we hope to prevent these sites from reemerging.”

While there is no question that websites like Backpage.com facilitate crimes against children on a global scale. There are concerns about overzealous prosecutors using the CDA as a weapon in their fight against sex trafficking . To go after third-party publishers.

The CARES Act:  

Under this bill, the CDA would no longer apply to cases involving violations of federal sex trafficking laws or “obscenity” charges. This would allow prosecutors to hold accountable those websites that are directly involve in child sex trafficking. For instance, it would enable state attorneys general and victims to take legal action against advertising networks. Like Backpage.com if they choose to continue allowing ads featuring children. It would also place greater pressure on credit card companies and banks. By removing liability protection under the CDA for businesses that knowingly allow their services. To be in transactions associating with child prostitution or human trafficking (which is already requiring by current federal law).

The primary goal is to prevent trafficking through financial means. Which is recognize as the most effective and efficient way to combat the crime. While there is no question that websites like Backpage.com facilitate crimes against children on a global scale. There are concerns about overzealous prosecutors. Using the CDA as a weapon in their fight against sex trafficking to go after third-party publishers.

The CARES Act was scheduling for a vote on Monday, May 19 but did not pass. Before Congress adjourned for its month-long summer recess this week…

And though many feel the legislation would have passed if it had come to a vote. Some politicians still think it has a chance of passing when Congress reconvenes in September


The intent behind the bill is good; allowing prosecutors to go after websites that are directly involving in child sex trafficking. William D King says the fact that it does not address the advertisers, payment networks. Or other middlemen who knowingly benefit from online child prostitution is unfortunate. There seems to be reasonable doubt as to whether this will have its intended effect of shutting down Backpage.com. Without negatively impacting third-party publishers who have nothing to do with illegal activity on their sites.