Sex traffickers in America have the police and prosecutors pursuing them, but they do have one crucial (if secret) ally: Google.
Google’s motto has long been “Don’t be evil,” and I admire lots about the company. But organizations it funds have for years been quietly helping Backpage.com, the odious website where most American victims of human trafficking are sold, to battle lawsuits from children sold there for sex.
Now Google is using its enormous lobbying power in Washington to try to kill bipartisan legislation that would crack down on websites that promote sex trafficking.
“I wanted to bring to your attention an issue that is picking up steam in the Senate and the House,” a Google lobbyist, E. Stewart Jeffries, wrote in a letter to congressional offices last month. He urged House members not to co-sponsor the legislation targeting sex trafficking.
It’s not that Google is taking ads from Backpage (it doesn’t) or giving it money. But as Backpage fights off prosecutors and worries about the legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, Google has emerged as its behind-the-scenes champion.
Why? Why would Google ally itself with Backpage, which is involved in 73 percent of cases of suspected child sex trafficking in the U.S., which advertised a 13-year-old whose pimp had tattooed his name on her eyelids?
The answer has to do with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet companies like Google (and The New York Times) from lawsuits — and also protects Backpage. Google seems to have a vague, poorly grounded fear that closing the loophole would open the way to frivolous lawsuits and investigations and lead to a slippery slope that will damage its interests and the freedom of the internet.
That impresses few people outside the tech community, for the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was crafted exceedingly narrowly to target only those intentionally engaged in trafficking children. Some tech companies, including Oracle, have endorsed the bill.
“This bill only impacts bad-actor websites,” notes Yiota Souras, general counsel at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “You don’t inadvertently traffic a child.”
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and lead sponsor of the legislation, says that it would clearly never affect Google. “We’ve tried to work with them,” Portman told me.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the lead Democratic sponsor, adds that “it’s truly baffling and perplexing” that some in the tech world (Google above all) have dug in their heels. He says the sex trafficking bill gathered 28 co-sponsors within a week, making it a rare piece of bipartisan legislation that seems likely to become law.
I write about this issue because I’m haunted by the kids I’ve met who were pretty much enslaved, right here in the U.S. in the 21st century. I’ve been writing about Backpage for more than five years, ever since I came across a terrified 13-year-old girl, Baby Face, who had been forced to work for a pimp in New York City.
Baby Face said that when she balked, the pimp threw her down a stairway. Finally, one day she was hurting badly and could not bear to be raped any more. So when her pimp sold her on Backpage in Brooklyn and waited outside the building, Baby Face pounded on the door of another apartment, begged to use the phone and called her mom. The police rescued her and the pimp went to prison.
But it’s not enough to send a few pimps to prison; we should also go after online marketplaces like Backpage. That’s why Google’s myopia is so sad.
The Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act won’t end trafficking any more than laws end bank robbery, but 50 attorneys general around the country have signed a letter saying that this kind of legislation would help — an astonishing unanimity.
In response to my inquiries, Google issued a statement: “Backpage acted criminally to facilitate child sex trafficking, and we strongly urge the Department of Justice to prosecute them for their egregious crimes against children. … Google will continue to work alongside Congress, antitrafficking organizations and other technology companies to combat sex trafficking.
”Fine, but then why oppose legislation? Why use intermediaries to defend Backpage? To me, all this reflects the tech world’s moral blindness about what’s happening outside its bubble.
Even if Google were right that ending the immunity for Backpage might lead to an occasional frivolous lawsuit, life requires some balancing.
For example, websites must try to remove copyrighted material if it’s posted on their sites. That’s a constraint on internet freedom that makes sense, and it hasn’t proved a slippery slope. If we’re willing to protect copyrights, shouldn’t we do as much to protect children sold for sex?
I asked Nacole, a mom in Washington State whose daughter was trafficked on Backpage at the age of 15, what she would say to Google.
“Our children can’t be the cost of doing business,” she said. Google understands so much about business, but apparently not that.
<NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF