There is a small political movement afoot to combat child sex trafficking online. Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri recently introduced a bill called the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which would make it unlawful to knowingly advertise certain commercial sex acts. The bill has quickly gained co-sponsors, and it joins other bills that are intended to target sex trafficking. Although SAVE does not distinguish between online advertisers and print advertisers (indeed, it does not mention anything Internet-related), its sponsors have stated that the bill is “designed to close Internet marketplaces that host advertisements for the commercial exploitation of minors.”
Prostitution and child sex trafficking in America is an enormous underground industry that has moved from the streets to online marketplaces like Backpage.com, a classified advertising website. Unfortunately, law enforcement and prosecutors are finding it difficult to fully thwart online sex trafficking because Backpage and other websites are hiding behind Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields Internet service providers (ISPs) from liability for third party postings. Courts have ruled that this section provides immunity to websites that host classified ads, even if there are ads for prostitution or child sex trafficking. This immunity protects ISPs against both state criminal prosecution and civil suits by victims.