What some elected officials call a loophole that had allowed Internet sites like Backpage.com to facilitate prostitution and sex trafficking, including in North Dakota, is about to close.

In a rare bipartisan moment, the U.S. Senate voted 97 to 2 to approve legislation that will hold sites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking accountable for doing so. The measure is now headed to the president’s desk to be signed into law.

The legislation followed a two-year investigation by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, on which U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp serves. The committee investigated ads placed on Backpage.com, including several in North Dakota, and determined that Backpage.com had deliberately crafted loopholes to enable trafficking on its site, particularly of children.

Heitkamp subsequently helped write and introduce the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers ACt with U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), RIchard Blumenthal (D-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Claire MCCaskill, (D-MO) and John Cornyn (R-TX).

The legislation clarifies that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not protect websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking, allowing victims to seek justice and giving prosecutors and law enforcement expanded capabilities to pursue case against online sites involved in human trafficking.

It would also enable state law enforcement officials to take action against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws. That had been restricted to federal agencies.

Tim Purdon, former U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, said his office had caught and prosecuted traffickers in western North Dakota, and praised Heitkamp for being one of the first to recognize the severity of the problem.

“(Heitkamp) has been a national leader in the effort to seek justice against those who profit from sexual exploitation,” he said. “If we’re serious about combating the scourge of human trafficking in North Dakota, we need to crack down on those who aid and abet in the the sale of children online.”

Heitkamp said the legislation is a crucial step forward in seeking justice for the victims of a horrific crime and empowering law enforcement to pursue violators.

“The role of the internet in selling children for sex is an egregious problem we noticed while investigating human trafficking in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said. “Websites like Backpage.com shouldn’t be allowed to shamefully hide behind the First Amendment to promote and profit from modern day slavery, and they must be held accountable along with the perpetrators.”

Sen. John Hoeven was a co-sponsor of provisions in the legislation and voted for the bill, which he said aligns with his efforts to support state and local law enforcement efforts to fight human trafficking.

Hoeven was active in efforts to secure a permanent Federal Bureau of Investigation presence in western North Dakota, as well as annual funding for law enforcement training, equipment and personnel and victim services through the U.S. Department of Justice.

“This legislation will help ensure that federal and state authorities will be able to hold websites accountable for engaging in prostitution and sex trafficking and provide victims with the restitution they deserve,” he said. “At the same time, the bill is narrowly crafted to protect websites that unknowingly host illegal content. Our legislation specifically targets websites and persons that have been abusing protections for online service providers in order to facilitate sex trafficking and will help bring those offenders to justice.”

The legislation is being hailed by many as key to law enforcement efforts to crack down on sex trafficking, although some tech groups had opposed it on the grounds it might limit freedom of speech online.

Among those praising the measure is John F. Clark, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has reported an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking from 2010 to 2015.

“The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children applauds Senate passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which will ensure that children trafficked for sex online can have their day in court against online traffickers and clarifies that there is no legal protection for anyone who participates in the sex trafficking of children,” he said. “Thank you to the Senate sponsors—including Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who, along with Senators Rob Portman and Richard Blumenthal, led the way to get this important legislation passed and we look forward to President Trump signing it into law.”

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox also praised the measure.

“Individuals who engage in child sex trafficking are typically very adept at using technology to recruit and exploit their victims. The migratory nature of this crime has been underscored by the lack of federal laws necessary to enable investigators and prosecutors to bring online child sex traffickers to justice. I thank Senator Daines for co-sponsoring this bill, which will give states more power to prosecute online sex traffickers and protect children across the country.”

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