- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2018

President Trump cracked down on online sex trafficking Wednesday by enacting a new law that forces operators of internet marketplaces and message boards to police the content posted on their websites.

No longer can websites look the other way or, worse yet, enable forced prostitution or the trafficking of children for sex, said the law’s authors.

But internet freedom advocates argued that the law goes too far and ushers in an era of online censorship. The critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, said it not only tramples free-speech rights but will force sex workers from the safety of the internet onto dangerous street corners.

Mr. Trump described the bill — the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act or FOSTA — as a commonsense measure.

He said it was harder to pass in Congress than it should have been, although it ultimately garnered overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate.

“This was a tough one. It shouldn’t have been tough,” said Mr. Trump at a White House singing ceremony. “I guess people have reasons [to oppose it], but I personally don’t understand those reasons.”

FOSTA goes after sex traffickers and pimps by making the owners of websites where they advertise liable for the criminal activity. It carved out an exemption in the Communications Decency Act, which previously shielded website owners from liability for user-generated content.

While the new law focuses on the sex trade, the removal of liability protection for website owners has broader implications, said internet freedom advocates.

Elliot Harmon of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said FOSTA would do nothing to stop sex traffickers.

“This law is an attack on everyone’s right to speak and gather online. By exposing web platforms that may host sexual speech to wide-ranging civil and criminal liability, it incentivizes them to overcensor their users,” he said.

In anticipation of the new law, Craigslist last month shut down its personals section rather than face potential criminal or civil liability for people misusing the service.

At the signing ceremony, the president was joined by lawmakers and victims of online sex trafficking.

“I’m signing this bill in your honor,” he said to the victims and their family members. “You have endured what no person on Earth should have to endure.”

A woman who goes by the initials M.A. became teary-eyed at the ceremony. In 2010, she was the first to sue the classified ad website Backpage.com for its role in selling her as a child prostitute.

“I am not a survivor. I am M.A. It’s about damn time,” she said, prompting laughter and applause from the crowd in the Oval Office.

Penny Nancy, president of the evangelical activist group Concerned Women for America, hailed the new law for finally closing loopholes that allowed websites to facilitate and profit from sex trafficking.

“This is a huge victory for all the victims who have been impacted by the compliance, negligence, and intentional exploitation by websites like Backpage.com that allowed them to be sold and repeatedly raped,” she said.

The measure gained momentum with rising political opposition to the infamous Backpage.com website, a classified ad site linked to prostitution and sex trafficking, including underage prostitution.

Federal prosecutors Monday indicted seven Backpage.com executive on 93 counts, including pimping and money laundering. The feds also seized all of the company’s websites around the globe and raided the Arizona home of one of its founders, Michael Lacey.

The Backpage executives are accused of running the Internet’s top marketplace for prostitution and sex trafficking, earning more than $500 million in sex trade revenue since its inception in 2004.

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