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Attorneys general, including Georgia's, want tools to battle online child sex trafficking

Attorney General Sam Olens.

Attorney General Sam Olens.

ATLANTA -- Attorney General Sam Olens joined a bipartisan national coalition of 49 attorneys general Wednesday calling on Congress to amend federal law to help states fight prostitution and child sex trafficking. In a letter to key members of Congress, the attorneys general have asked that Congress amend the Communications Decency Act to restore criminal jurisdiction to state and local prosecutors.

Olens’ office said that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 was drafted when the Internet was in its infancy. The original purpose of the act was to protect children from accessing indecent material online, but courts have interpreted certain provisions of the act in a way that provides online classified ad sites immunity from state prosecution. Under this protection, sites such as backpage.com have knowingly created an online marketplace for prostitution and, consequently, child sex trafficking, his office said.

Local prosecutors report that prostitution solicitations have largely moved online, Olens’ office said. Such sites are extremely lucrative. Backpage.com, for example, generates an estimated $3 million to $4 million per month in revenue, the office said.

“It is ironic that the CDA, which was intended to protect children from indecent material on the Internet ... is now used as a shield by those who intentionally profit from prostitution and crimes against children,” the attorneys general wrote in the letter.

The proposed amendment is narrowly crafted to combat this conduct, Olens said. Absent interstate travel, federal property or the involvement of a minor, prostitution is not a federal crime. The proposal would remove a loophole that had denied state and local jurisdiction over online classified ads, including those for prostitution and child sex trafficking. By maintaining civil immunity, mainstream online content providers will not be affected, and innovation on the Internet will be preserved, he said.

If the amendment is enacted, Olens said, state and local governments will have the ability to criminally investigate whether these sites and their management are culpable for aiding and abetting prostitution or other similar crimes.

“Traffickers have taken advantage of loopholes in the current law to sexually exploit children on the Internet,” Olens said. “A majority of the victims recovered by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, for example, have been advertised on backpage.com at some point. As

the tactics used by traffickers evolve, we must ensure that the law is modernized to effectively combat this heinous crime.”