Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Mar 21 2018

Heitkamp’s Bipartisan Bill to Hold Websites Like Backpage.com Accountable for Sex Trafficking, Protect Victims Passes Senate, Now goes to be Signed into Law

Legislation Builds on Senator’s Efforts to Eliminate Online Anonymity for Traffickers by Strengthening Internet Protections and Law Enforcement Capabilities to Help Stop Trafficking in ND and Across the U.S.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today announced that her bipartisan bill to hold websites like Backpage.com accountable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking online and to give greater legal protections to trafficking victims passed in the U.S. Senate – by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 97-2 – and will now head 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 Heitkamp serves, into ads placed on Backpage.com of victims of sex trafficking, including in North Dakota. As part of the investigation, Heitkamp and the Subcommittee held multiple hearings on Backpage.com. In January 2017, the Subcommittee released its report, which found that Backpage.com deliberately crafted loopholes that enabled trafficking on its site – particularly of children. As a result of the extensive investigation, Heitkamp helped write and introduce the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) 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 role of the internet in selling children for sex is an egregious problem we noticed while investigating human trafficking in North Dakota. 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, alongside the perpetrators,” said Heitkamp. “Our bipartisan bill would help prevent the horrific abuse of enslaved men, women, and children permitted by these sites. Today marks a crucial step in the effort to seek justice against these websites and to empower state law enforcement to confront those who callously violate federal trafficking laws. I hope the president swiftly signs this legislation into law, so that we can continue to be vigilant in shielding children in North Dakota and across the country from the misery of sex trafficking.”

“If we’re serious about combatting the scourge of human trafficking in North Dakota, we need to crack down on those who aid and abet in the sale of children online,” said Tim Purdon, former U.S. Attorney for the State of North Dakota. “During my time as U.S. Attorney, our office caught and prosecuted traffickers in western North Dakota. Senator Heitkamp was one of the first lawmakers to recognize the severity of this threat, and she has been a national leader in the effort to seek justice against those who profit from sexual exploitation. The passage of her bill today in the Senate reiterates her commitment to supporting trafficking victims and sends a clear message that America is no place to benefit from child trafficking.”

The narrowly crafted legislation would clarify that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act does not protect websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking, therefore allowing victims to seek justice and providing prosecutors with expanded capabilities.

Specifically, SESTA would:

  • Allow victims of sex trafficking to seek justice against websites that knowingly or recklessly facilitated the crimes against them.
  • Eliminate federal liability protections for websites that assist, support, or facilitate a violation of federal sex trafficking laws.
  • Enable state law enforcement officials, not just the federal Department of Justice, to take action against individuals or businesses that violate federal sex trafficking laws. 

In September, Heitkamp joined members of the Senate Commerce Committee for a hearing to consider SESTA. At the hearing, Heitkamp sat alongside Cindy McCain, an international leader in the global fight against human trafficking, to underscore to her Senate colleagues that this legislation is necessary to immediately provide victims an avenue to seek justice for their exploitation – and make sure that companies will be held liable to the fullest extent of the law for profiting from this form of modern-day slavery. Click here for a list of national anti-trafficking, public health, faith, industry, and law enforcement organizations supporting the bill.

“No country or society should tolerate companies profiting off of or facilitating human trafficking and allow them to hide behind a law created before the internet really took off,” said Cindy McCain, global anti-human trafficking leader. “We must do everything we can to stop this evil crime and protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, including children. When websites like Backpage.com can facilitate trafficking with impunity, it’s clear the law must be changed to hold them accountable. For years, I’ve been fighting Backpage.com and have been working closely with Senator Heitkamp to combat human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. I greatly appreciate her years of work on this investigation into Backpage.com and her efforts to craft this important and needed bill. With the Senate passing this bipartisan bill today, we can now seek justice for those victimized by these horrible crimes. Inaction is not an option on an issue as important as the safety of our children – and other victims of trafficking.”

Earlier this year, Heitkamp released an episode of her podcast “The Hotdish” featuring interviews with Portman and anti-human trafficking advocate Yiota Souras of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. During their discussion, they spoke about the urgent need to pass SESTA. Click here to listen.

“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.  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,” said John F. Clark, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In 2017, Heitkamp was interviewed alongside Portman, McCain, and McCaskill in the film “I Am Jane Doe,” which chronicled the stories of several underage girls who have been illegally trafficked for sex through online classified advertisements. Click here to read a Washington Post article about the documentary’s fight to raise awareness about human trafficking in the United States.

Background

Heitkamp has long been working to help the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations gain information on how websites such as Backpage contribute to human trafficking and allow perpetrators to advertise their victims with anonymity. In November 2015, Heitkamp blasted the CEO of Backpage.com for refusing the Subcommittee’s subpoena to testify and for his company’s refusal to provide information on its purported use of safeguards to prevent human traffickers from using the site as a platform. She then voted unanimously along with the full Committee to hold the CEO and Backpage in civil contempt of Congress. That vote preceded the U.S. Senate’s unanimous vote in March 2016, which Heitkamp joined, to launch civil contempt proceedings against site – the first time in 20 years the U.S. Senate has held anyone in contempt of Congress.

In October 2016, Heitkamp called the arrest of Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer a needed step in halting his website’s role in providing a platform for human trafficking. At the hearing on the Committee’s report on Backpage.com, leadership of the company refused to testify, invoking their First and Fifth Amendment rights. Backpage.com also successfully hid behind the First Amendment when a minor, who was sold online on Backpage.com and raped repeatedly, sought to hold the site accountable.

Heitkamp has been a leader in championing legislative action to fight human trafficking. Heitkamp led an initial hearing in September 2013 to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking right in our own backyard, including in North Dakota. Since then, Heitkamp has pushed for legislative action to fight human trafficking, playing a key role in introducing and passing bipartisan legislation on the issue in 2015 in the U.S. Senate, which included her Safe Harbor bill to make sure victims are not treated as criminals.

She has continued to introduce more bills on the issue to provide resources for health care providers to stop human trafficking and protect runaway and homeless youth from trafficking. She successfully secured landmark anti-human trafficking protections for children in schools in the No Child Left Behind reform legislation. Building on that legislation, Heitkamp helped introduce a billwhich passed this fall in the U.S. Senate to boost assistance to victims of human trafficking, strengthen law enforcement and victims services organizations, and make sure perpetrators of these crimes are subject to harsher punishments. 

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Contact Senator Heitkamp's press office at press@heitkamp.senate.gov