Three children in Tampa were among 105 children rescued nationwide last month during a FBI sex trafficking sting operation.
“Operation Cross Country” focused on underage victims of prostitution and led to more than 150 arrests.
“This operation serves as a reminder that these abhorrent crimes can happen anywhere,” said Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
The National Association of Attorneys General knows it can happen anywhere. Unfortunately, states can do little about the exploitation of children online in many cases.
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 was supposed to protect children from indecent content on the Internet. But the association says the law doesn't give states the authority to prosecute pimps and others who use websites to advertise underage prostitution.
On this day, “therapeutic massage” is the top listing on Backpage.com. Ads in this category tend to be accompanied by provocative pictures of scantily clad females. The site includes plenty of mundane listings like “furniture for sale,” “trades & labor jobs,” and “pets for sale.” Others seem innocent enough – like “health/beauty services” - until you click on them and realize you're glad no children are in the room with you.
The association sent a letter to congressional leaders in Washington, urging them to amend the law so state and local prosecutors can have jurisdiction over human traffickers who promote their businesses online.
The Florida Attorney General's Office explained in a press release why this change is necessary:
"Prostitution is a local crime. Absent interstate travel, federal property, or the involvement of a minor, prostitution is not a federal crime. While the Communications Decency Act provides criminal authority to the federal government, the attorneys general believe that criminal jurisdiction needs to be extended to help combat these crimes.
Local prosecutors report that prostitution solicitations have largely moved online. Backpage.com, for example, generates an estimated $3 million to $4 million per month in revenue."
“By updating federal law, we can give prosecutors the tools they need to crack down on those who use technology to exploit children,” Attorney General Pam Bondi said. “I am committed to making Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking, and changing this law is just one more way we can work toward accomplishing that goal.”
Bondi's office refers to human trafficking as modern day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are subjected to sexual exploitation or forced labor as part of a $32-billion industry.
In 2011, Florida ranked 3rd in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline.
Here's a portion of the National Association of Attorneys General letter to Congress:
In instance after instance, state and local authorities discover that the vehicles for advertising the victims of the child sex trade to the world are online classified ad services, such as Backpage.com. The involvement of these advertising companies is not incidental—these companies have constructed their business models around income gained from participants in the sex trade.
But, as it has most recently been interpreted, the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prevents state and local law enforcement agencies from prosecuting these companies.
In the last few months alone, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation have linked sex-trafficking operations to internet advertisers. For example, on March 28, Miami police arrested a man for advertising the sex services of a 13-year-old girl on Backpage.com. The perpetrator had tattooed his name across the girl’s eyelids, marking her as his property.
Federal enforcement alone has proven insufficient to stem the growth of Internet facilitated child sex trafficking. Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children—state and local law enforcement—must be granted the authority to investigate and prosecute those who facilitate these horrible crimes.