Since the federal government enacted a law to fight sex trafficking online, the predictions of one Oregon congressman who opposed the measure appear to have come true.
“The bill passed today by the House will make it harder to catch bad actors and protect victims by driving this vile crime to shadowy corners of society that are harder for law enforcement to reach,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in February 2018.
Law enforcement officials said online sex trafficking has declined since a major federal crackdown last year, but it also has become harder to catch the bad guys and help victims caught up in the illicit sex trade.
In April 2018, federal law enforcement officials shut down the classified ad site Backpage.com and charged several Backpage executives with money laundering and facilitating prostitution. The site dominated the market for sex ads and was known to promote the trafficking of minors. Days later, President Donald Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). FOSTA-SESTA made websites liable for sex trafficking that happened on their platforms. Sites like Twitter and Craigslist made instant changes to kick off questionable users and content.
A company called Childsafe.ai that uses artificial intelligence to monitor sex trafficking online reported that one year after the takedown of Backpage in April 2018, advertising sites selling sex drew only 5 percent to 8 percent of the unique visitors Backpage had at its height in 2016. But some of that traffic spread to foreign websites the United States cannot regulate.
“If we spend the time and effort to shut down one website, another one will pop up, and our resources are finite,” Anaheim, Calif., Police Sgt. Juan Reveles told Reuters.
Prostitutes have complained that the law made their work more dangerous because they could not screen clients online. Others protested that the law violated free speech and set a dangerous precedent by making websites police their content.
“The quality of Backpage’s product, from a lack of scam standpoint, was really, really high, and none of these advertising websites have been able to duplicate that level … mostly because they’re not able to make the same kind of money Backpage was able to make,” Childsafe.ai CEO Rob Spectre said, adding that the newer sites are “decades behind” Backpage in their efficiency and technology.
Still, Childsafe.ai saw a 58 percent year-over-year decline after the end of Backpage in buyers responding to sex ads. Evaluating last year’s efforts against sex trafficking will take years, but for now, the market remains extremely volatile with no clear successor to Backpage.