STOP ENABLING SEX TRAFFICKERS ACT; Congressional Record Vol. 164, No. 58
(Senate - April 11, 2018)

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[Pages S2079-S2081]
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  Mr. PORTMAN. On another topic, Mr. President, today is a big day in 
the fight against sex trafficking.
  I just got back a couple of hours ago from a meeting at the White 
House where the President of the United States signed legislation that 
we have been working on for several years to be able to push back 
against the sex trafficking that is occurring online. It was very 
emotional. We had a lot of survivors, victims of sex trafficking, who 
were there.
  One of them was standing next to the President. When he signed the 
bill, he asked whether she wanted to say anything. Fighting back tears, 
Yvonne Ambrose said: I want to tell you about my daughter.
  She told the President about her 16-year-old daughter who was 
trafficked on, a website that has most of the commercial 
sex traffic, and how she got a call on Christmas Eve a couple of years 
ago. Her daughter had been murdered. As she said, no mother

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should ever have to accept or take that call.
  She talked about how her daughter got dragged into this issue of 
trafficking and said that she hopes the legislation we passed will be 
able to save other daughters, other granddaughters, other Americans who 
otherwise would become part of the sex trafficking tragedy we have seen 
unfold in our country.
  This legislation came out of experiences we have all had when we go 
back home. We talk to victims and survivors, and we have learned over 
the past several years that trafficking is actually on the increase in 
this country, in this century. People think: Well, trafficking is going 
on, but it happens in Africa or it happens in Asia or it happens in 
Latin America. It happens here. It probably happens in your community. 
Unfortunately, it happens in my State of Ohio way too frequently.
  Through our investigation and studies of this, increasingly, we heard 
about online trafficking. Survivors have told me: Rob, this has moved 
from the street corner to the smartphone.
  Groups, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited 
Children, showed that from 2005 to 2015 there was an 800-percent 
increase in reports of trafficking. All of the experts agree that there 
is an increase in trafficking, and all agree that most of this is 
attributable directly to one thing--the movement to the ruthless 
efficiency of online selling of women and children.
  One website in particular kept coming, which I 
mentioned earlier. So we launched an investigation over a 2-year period 
in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which I chair. We 
decided to dig deep and find out what was going on, why it was 
happening, and what the nature of this was. What we found was shocking.
  Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri is the ranking member of the 
committee. She and I did this investigation, together with our 
committee, and we issued the report together. It was bipartisan from 
the start. I would say it was even nonpartisan, and it is to this day.
  The investigation involved asking for a lot of 
information that they were unwilling to give. We had to subpoena them, 
and they still refused to provide the information. We had to come to 
this Chamber, to the U.S. Senate, and get a vote of the entire Senate--
the first time in 21 years we had to do this--to be able to enforce 
these subpoenas. Every Member of this body got engaged and involved in 
this, and by the end of the process, we had a unanimous vote from the 
Senate to say: Yes, you should be able to force people to provide 
relevant information to the committees that are doing oversight, like 
  We got permission to enforce it, which meant potential criminal 
sanctions, and they still wouldn't give us information. They fought us 
at the district level. They lost there. Then they fought us at the 
circuit level. We fought and won there. Then they fought us at the 
Supreme Court of the United States. We had to take it all the way to 
the Supreme Court.
  Then, yes, they did provide us with about a million documents. They 
still refused to testify. They took the Fifth. But they did provide us 
with the documents because they had to under the threat of penalty of 
law. Through those documents, we found out something shocking, which 
was that not only were they selling women and girls online and making a 
lot of money doing it, but they were purposely selling underage girls 
and trying to hide the fact that they were doing it. Think about that. 
They were not only selling girls and women online, but they were taking 
ads for underage girls, knowing they were underage and running the ads 
  In fact, they would go to the people who were trying to place the ads 
and say: You know what, you need to change this word. You can't use the 
word ``schoolgirl'' because this indicates the girl is underage. You 
can't use the word ``cheerleader'' because that shows that she is 
underage. You can't use the word ``Lolita,'' which is a novel about a 
young girl being trafficked and an older man.
  You can't use the description of the girl and put her age in there if 
she is underage, but they want your ad anyway. They edited the ads, so 
they were complicit in this.
  You would think a prosecutor would be able to go after these people, 
right? They are engaged in illegal activity online. If that activity 
were happening offline, on the street corner in your community, it 
would be illegal. When the prosecutors went after these people online 
and when the victims of trafficking, like the woman I talked about 
earlier whose 16-year-old daughter was murdered while she was being 
trafficked on backpage--when they went after backpage in that case, 
they were unsuccessful. Why? Because they said: Yes, Desiree died. Yes, 
Desiree would have a lawsuit here, as well as other women and families 
who came to testify before us. Kubiiki Pride is one, and her daughter 
was there today. But there is a Federal law that says: We, the courts, 
can't even take up this case because the Federal law provides an 
immunity, a shield, to these websites. Unbelievable.
  We had a court in Sacramento last year actually tell Congress, 
basically: Please change this law. They said: We can't stop this 
exploitation--this alleged exploitation of women and girls. We can't 
stop it because Congress has passed a law that protects these websites. 
No one can go after them.
  The more we learned, the more we dug, the more we found out what was 
really going on, we determined that our report, which you can see 
here--and I encourage you to check out this report. You can find it 
online. ``Backpage'' is the search, and look on Go 
to, and you will see this report, if you are 
interested in it. The summaries will help. What it says, basically, is 
that they are trafficking these individuals, and they know they are 
doing it. Yet they are immune.
  Once we determined that was our issue, we determined it was time for 
us to figure out legislation to actually change our Federal law that 
was permitting it. The culmination of that was today when the President 
of the United States signed that into law.
  For a couple of years, we had quite a legislative struggle because 
there were a lot of individuals who said: Well, you can't touch these 
internet companies because of this law.
  The law was passed 21 years ago, at the infancy of the internet. It 
was well-intentioned, but I do not believe that any Member of this body 
intended, when they passed that law, to say that you should be able to 
traffic people online knowingly and not pay some consequence for it, 
not be accountable for it.
  We made a very narrow carve-out for trafficking of individuals 
online. We made sure that it was consistent with the Federal criminal 
law that was already in place if you were to do it offline. We ensured 
that there was a Good Samaritan provision so that if a website was in 
good faith trying to clean up its site and edit its site and get this 
information off of it, they would not be liable. That Good Samaritan or 
safe harbor provision was in our legislation. We proceeded to get it 
  We had a lot of pushback, particularly from the tech community--not 
everybody in the tech community but certain people who believe strongly 
that this legislation was somehow a threat to internet freedom. I do 
not believe that to this day. I believe it is targeted, it is 
responsible, and it certainly is an issue on which you would think 
everybody would agree.
  Just because you are online does not mean you are not accountable and 
responsible for selling people online--again, in the context of more 
and more trafficking in this country. As you look into it, you 
determine that is because of this online presence, the ruthless 
efficiency of the online selling of women and children.
  We were able to bring it to the floor for a vote after a committee 
process. We went through the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. 
We went through the Commerce Committee. At the end of the day, we got a 
vote in this Chamber of 97 to 2. That rarely happens around here--
rarely, if ever. Again, today, finally, the President signed the bill.
  It looks like it was easier to do at the end. I will tell you, a 
couple of years ago, we were told: This will never happen. You can't 
make this happen. You can't beat us. We have a lot of

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power. We have a lot lobbyists. We have a lot of abilities to stop you 
in the committee.
  Yet, through persuasion and, frankly, through the personal testimony 
of victims and survivors who were willing to come forward and 
courageously share their stories, we were able to prevail. Today, it 
was a victory--not for this body, not for the legislative process, but 
it was a victory for those victims and those survivors.
  One mom told me today: This means my granddaughter won't have to 
worry about this issue. It means that when my kid goes to the mall, I 
don't have to worry as much about what might happen, who might try to 
take her into this web of trafficking.
  My hope is that this legislation will be able to curb the online 
trafficking in a significant way. We are already seeing the results of 
that. I was told today, in fact, that websites that trafficked people 
online are shutting down all over America because they don't want to be 
sued, because they are losing their immunity. It is not affecting the 
freedom of the internet, but it is affecting those evil websites that 
were engaged in criminal activity and hiding behind section 230 of the 
Communications Decency Act. I am told that as many as 80 percent of 
those trafficking websites have shut down just in the last several days 
because they don't want to be subject to these lawsuits.
  We also had something else that was very interesting happen this 
week. The Department of Justice went after They actually 
indicted seven individuals. If you look at the indictment, which I have 
here--you can find this by going on the Justice Department website, I 
am sure; it is in the district court in Arizona--you will see that they 
named seven individuals. These are the same seven individuals we named 
in our report. They also used the information from our report about the 
fact that backpage was changing ads, editing ads. In other words, they 
were knowingly allowing ads about underage girls to be run because they 
wanted the profits. That is exactly what is talked about in this 
  The work of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was very 
important because it enabled us to provide to the Justice Department 
information they used for these indictments. We provided that 
information 10 months ago, and the indictments came out in the last 
several days.
  My hope is that now, because this law passed, we will see a lot more 
prosecutions because we have now allowed State prosecutors and 
attorneys general around the country and local prosecutors, district 
attorneys, and county prosecutors--who are the ones who ultimately are 
going to be much more effective and more able to go after this kind of 
activity--to do so.
  Backpage has been in existence for 14 years. Until this week, the 
Federal Justice Department had not made these indictments. It was great 
that they did it. It is also about time, in my view. Now we have this 
tool to allow other prosecutors to be more aggressive, to do what 
should have been done years ago--to save the lives of so many girls, 
women, and boys whose lives have been taken off track because of the 
trauma associated with this. We also now have the opportunity for the 
victims themselves to file lawsuits.
  This is already having a chilling effect. In other words, it is 
already taking down these websites that don't want to be sued. They 
know our legislation--although very narrowly crafted--applies to them 
because they are knowingly involved in, supporting, assisting sex 
  I think this is a victory for the victims, the survivors, and, maybe 
most importantly, the potential future victims. It is also an 
opportunity for us to celebrate something that this Chamber 
accomplished in a bipartisan way, going through the right process, 
doing the research, coming up with the facts, narrowly crafting 
legislation that works, which doesn't have a negative impact, but in 
fact, it helps to change behavior. We are already seeing it.
  My hope is that we will do more of that around here. We have many 
other issues to address. Earlier, we talked about the opioid crisis. 
Congress passed some good legislation, but we need to do more.
  We have an issue with getting people back to work who are in the 
shadows of our economy, some of whom have a felony record, some of whom 
are addicted to opioids, some of whom don't have the skills to engage 
in a modern economy. That is a huge challenge. To me, it is 
unbelievable that we have so many people who are in our country but not 
in our labor force. Our labor force participation rate, as economists 
call it, is as low as it has ever been for men in the history of our 
country. There are probably 9 million men between 25 and 55 who are 
able-bodied and not working today. That is wrong.
  There are many issues we need to address. If we can do those studies 
in the same way and come up with sensible solutions based on research, 
based on good practices, keep it not just bipartisan but nonpartisan, 
and say: Let's get the politics out of this, and let's try to figure 
out how to help people--which is our job around here; that is what we 
were elected to do--maybe we can make progress in a number of different 
  Today, at the signing ceremony for this legislation, the SESTA 
legislation, I had the opportunity to see a friend of mine, Theresa 
Flores, who runs a group called Save Our Adolescents From Prostitution, 
S.O.A.P. the reason she uses the acronym S.O.A.P. is that Theresa, who 
is a survivor--she was trafficked years ago and now has a passion for 
this issue. She calls her organization S.O.A.P. because she goes to 
major events around the country, sporting events, where there tend to 
be an increase in trafficking. What she does is she goes to the hotels 
and asks them to put a bar of soap in the bathroom. On that bar of 
soap, she has listed the national hotline for sex trafficking. A girl 
can call that number and have someone come rescue her, and she can 
escape from her trafficker.
  That simple act of making these bars of soap and getting hotels to 
place them in these bathrooms has been remarkably effective. Think 
about it. These girls or women may have no other time where they have 
privacy, where they don't have the trafficker with them, where they are 
not feeling under duress. When they have their private moment in the 
bathroom, they see the number. Many of them have called that number and 
have been able to escape this life and get back to a productive life, 
with treatment, with support, with the kind of longer term recovery 
that is needed to get through the trauma, to get through, in many 
cases, the drug addiction. Drugs are involved in this, as you can 
imagine, as a way to make these women, girls, and boys dependent. In 
fact, in Ohio, unfortunately, that is a common practice, is that drugs 
are involved.
  Theresa Flores has done something incredible. She has channeled her 
frustration and all of the trauma she went through into something very 
constructive. She was there today, and her comment to me was that, by 
this act, by passing this law, we are going to save lives, and we are 
going to enable future generations to not go down the tragic and dark 
road she had to go down. That should make us feel good in this Chamber. 
It should make us feel good for those whose lives can be helped through 
this and for those victims to at least have the opportunity to have 
their day in court, to be able to seek justice.
  I thank the President of the United States for signing the 
legislation today. I thank Ivanka Trump in particular for her support 
on the legislation all along the way. I hope this legislation will be a 
model for others to come.
  I yield back my time.
  The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Georgia.