[Trigger warning: this post discussed sex trafficking of minors.]
SB 6251 is an anti-sex trafficking law out of Washington State which threatens to do the same thing to the internet at SOPA and PIPA did: hobble real-time 3rd party posting by requiring it to be checked individually by the host. This time, the bill comes out of an urge to stop businesses like Backpage from making $20 million dollars a year from selling ad space for sex ads, when some of those ads are for people who don’t want to be sold.
I think my anti-trafficking credentials are pretty unimpeachable. If you come here often, you know I write about, given presentations about, and work on moving us to a world without slavery. (Sometimes I even sing about it). I believe human trafficking is a crime which degrades our common humanity.
SB 6251 is still a bad law. There’s a saying that I learned from my professor in my “First Amendment Law” class my freshman year of college:
Bad facts make bad law.
The facts rarely get as bad as those involved in trafficking. With the faces of those who’ve survived trafficking in your mind’s eye, it is hard to remember why freedom of speech is so central to our conception of American democracy. The free-flowing, often grotty, sometimes transcendent, often banal expressions which make up our national discourse are our proudest export. That we are so brave as to let hateful people, destructive people, speak freely speaks to our strength as a nation.
Blocking sex trafficking of youths and adults with the mechanisms SB 6251 uses is like trying to stop the flow of sewage into the Mississippi by damming the entire thing. It damages a useful provision of the Communications Decency Act and harms speech on the internet by forcing hosts to be censors. There are some great laws which need our support to prevent and prosecute human trafficking and protect the victims and survivors. SB 6251 is not one of them.
I don’t know if there’s a good legislative approach to closing down Backpage, or forcing them to do more to prevent their website from being the first port-of-call for traffickers wishing to sell people against their will. Maybe a social justice approach with boycots, maybe outreach to the non-trafficking survivors who use the site, maybe mobilizing thousands of volunteers to comb through every posting to ensure no one getting sold, only people selling themselves, use Backpage for their own ads. Maybe The Village Voice, the owners of Backpage, will heed the plea of founder Normal Mailer’s son and shut it down themselves rather than be associated with even one more case of sex trafficking.
I do know that SB 6251 is a wrong approach, one which offers freedom from one kind of restraint (trafficking) in return for accepting another (a government-imposed throttle on the internet). Let’s do better.
“A man called the hotline from Toledo, OH after his 14-year-old niece had run away from home. The niece had experienced sexual abuse in the past, and the man was concerned that she might be in trouble. After speaking with his niece’s teacher, he learned that she may be involved in commercial sex under the control of a potential pimp. […] The students also directed the teacher to multiple postings advertising the niece for commercial sex on Backpage.com. The postings claimed the niece was an adult.”–National Human Trafficking Hotline Call Vignettes, Sex Trafficking, Pimp-Controlled Online Advertisement