Days after the U.S. Department of Justice shut down Backpage.com, President Donald Trump signed a bill designed to make it easier to prosecute sites that facilitate human trafficking.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which passed the U.S. Senate last month, clarified that the Communications Decency Act does not protect websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, R-N.D., was among those who introduced the bill.
Heitkamp has said she made fighting human trafficking a priority after speaking with state law enforcement officials during her 2012 Senate run.
“Today is also a major win for trafficking victims and their families — they deserve an immense amount of credit for their bravery to stand up and fight back — along with the tireless efforts of victims advocates — they simply said, ‘no more,’” Heitkamp said in a statement after Trump signed the bill. “For far too long, trafficking victims were deprived justice against websites like Backpage.com that knowingly enabled this form of modern-day slavery and profited off victims’ pain. These websites will now face punishment for their disgusting role in facilitating this vile trade.”
The signing of the bill comes two days after indictments against seven Backpage.com officials were unsealed by the Justice Department.
In that 93-count indictment, prosecutors and the grand jury claim that despite a public stance that Backpage allowed only advertisements for legal services, officials knew and actually helped to facilitate ads for prostitution, including cases of children being trafficked for sex.
The indictment features short summaries of the cases of 17 women prosecutors claim were trafficked using Backpage.
One summary involved a woman whose pimp forced her to make trips to North Dakota between 2009 and 2012 to work as a prostitute. Many of the summaries highlight that Backpage moderators edited text or removed provocative photos from ads but allowed the ads to remain on the site.
The bill signed Wednesday came about after an investigation into Backpage by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. In addition to Heitkamp, the bill was written and introduced by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., John McCain, R-Ariz, Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
In a news release about the signing, Heitkamp highlighted the fact the bill had broad bipartisan support.
“I’m proud of our bipartisan work to move this bill across the finish line, and we need to stay vigilant as we fight to end sex trafficking and sever the chains of victims in North Dakota and across the country,” she said.