U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, this week discussed the importance of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and called on his colleagues to pass H.R. 1865, which includes both SESTA and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Trafficking Act (FOSTA), without delay.
Thune’s speech (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, for more than two decades, the commercial internet has been an undeniable force for good.
“It has delivered economic opportunity to people who would not otherwise have had it.
“It has empowered marginalized citizens around the world to fight back against oppressors.
“It has expanded educational opportunities, and made news and information more accessible.
“But like any tool, the internet can be used for evil as well as for good.
“And right now, certain corners of the internet are being exploited to facilitate sex trafficking, including the widespread trafficking of children.
“Mr. President, each year, thousands of children are sexually trafficked within the United States.
“That’s right, Mr. President.
“Thousands of children are trafficked each year in the United States.
“Not in some faraway country, but right here at home, in our communities.
“And more and more every day, this trafficking is being facilitated via the internet.
“A Google executive reports that, and I quote, ‘three out of four child sex trafficking victims in the U.S. have been exploited online.’
“The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015.
“The increase, the National Center reports, is ‘directly correlated to the increased use of the internet to sell children for sex.’
“Now obviously, Mr. President, dedicated prosecutors and law enforcement around the country are working every day to combat the proliferation of sex trafficking on the internet.
“But some of their efforts have been stymied by a provision of a 1996 law called the Communications Decency Act.
“The provision in question – Section 230 – was meant to protect websites from being held accountable for material that people create and post on their sites.
“It’s thanks in part to this provision that such popular sites as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been able to flourish.
“But at least one website known to have facilitated sex trafficking has repeatedly used this provision to defend itself in court cases dealing with sex trafficking on its site.
“Now needless to say, Congress never intended this provision to be used to protect websites that knowingly facilitate trafficking.
“But courts have generally held that this provision does not permit them to hold websites accountable for facilitating sex trafficking.
“And courts have also made it clear that if Congress wants to ensure that these trafficking accomplices can be prosecuted, it needs to provide some clarity on this provision.
“And that’s what we’re here to do today.
“Senator Rob Portman, of Ohio, has been a leading voice in the Senate in the fight against human trafficking.
“And the legislation before us today includes his legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which will prevent Section 230 from being used as a defense by those who are knowingly cooperating with sex traffickers.
“Under the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, state law enforcement officials will be able to prosecute websites that knowingly assist in or facilitate sex trafficking.
“And victims will be allowed to seek justice when websites violate the federal sex trafficking statute.
“State attorneys general will also now be allowed to file civil suits against websites that knowingly facilitate trafficking.
“The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is an outstanding bill, Mr. President.
“It addresses a hole in our laws that is allowing sex traffickers to exploit the internet to facilitate their trafficking, but it ensures that only bad actors are targeted and maintains the key freedoms that have allowed the internet to flourish.
“Under this legislation, websites can only be prosecuted if they knowingly facilitate or support trafficking.
“This bill is strongly supported by members of both parties.
“In fact, 68 out of 100 senators are co-sponsors of this bill.
“This bill is supported by the White House.
“It is supported by law enforcement organizations.
“It is supported by organizations that fight sex trafficking.
“It is supported by faith-based organizations.
“And it is supported by a number of major technology companies.
“I was proud to help facilitate conversations with a number of technology companies that resulted in solid support for this bill among members of the technology community.
“Mr. President, the process of getting this bill to the Senate floor today has been characterized by a wonderful degree of bipartisanship.
“I am hoping that continues as we debate this bill over the next couple of days.
“I encourage my colleagues to reject any attempts to slow this bill down with amendments.
“We have a remarkable degree of consensus on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act both within and without Congress, and we should not disturb this momentum.
“We need to get this bill over the finish line.
“Every day we wait for this bill to be enacted into law is another day in which websites in the dark corners of the internet can facilitate the heinous practice of sexually exploiting vulnerable human beings.
“Mr. President, during the Commerce Committee hearing I chaired on this bill, we heard testimony from Yvonne Ambrose, whose daughter, Desiree Robinson, was sexually trafficked repeatedly before being murdered.
“Desiree was just 16, a bright and loving girl who dreamed of becoming a doctor in the Air Force.
“Instead, she was raped and murdered by a man twice her age who had sought her for sex after seeing her advertised on an internet site.
“Mr. President, every day across this country, there’s another Desiree being trafficked.
“Some of these children are not yet teenagers.
“They should be going to basketball games and birthday parties.
“Instead, they are being taken to homes and hotels to be violated by strangers.
“Some, like Desiree, will die there.
“Mr. President, fighting trafficking has to be a priority for all of us.
“I’m proud to have helped draft two bills that became law to address human trafficking in commercial vehicles.
“But while we’ve passed some good legislation over the past few years, there is a lot more work to be done.
“There are many more Desirees out there in danger, and we have an obligation to do everything we can to protect them.
“The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act will strike an important blow against the new wave of traffickers exploiting the internet to sell children.
“And the bill it’s now a part of, the bill we’re considering today – the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act – will further boost SESTA’s impact by strengthening criminal penalties for facilitating sex trafficking.
“I urge my colleagues to pass this bill and get it to the president as soon as possible.“There are a lot of children out there who are waiting for our help.”