Seeking justice for victims of online sex trafficking

Published 10:47 am Thursday, March 29, 2018

Many of us have heard heartbreaking stories of human trafficking and child exploitation. These reprehensible practices continue to plague communities and devastate families throughout our nation, sickening us to the core.

Last year, 82 cases of human trafficking were reported to helplines in Kentucky, and more than 400 cases have been reported in our state since 2007, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Throughout the country, the hotline saw a staggering 13 percent increase in cases last year alone. That spike has materialized, in large part, because of the growth of sex trafficking online. It’s past time to take action to stop the perpetrators of online trafficking and give the victims and their families the justice they deserve.

I am proud to have taken an active role in combatting exploitation in all of its forms throughout my career in public service. As Jefferson County judge-executive, I had the privilege to help found the Kentucky Task Force on Exploited and Missing Children and to serve as its chairman. In my first year in the U.S. Senate, I sponsored legislation to help states locate and protect missing children.

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In those days, we sent cards to parents to keep their children’s fingerprints in the event something terrible happens to their child. However, the advent of the internet has created new forums for predators to exploit and traffic our children with ruthless efficiency, and new measures must be taken to protect the vulnerable in our communities.

Too often, the websites behind sex trafficking aren’t held responsible and their victims are denied justice. These traffickers profit through the exploitation of women and young children online and are able to effectively cover up their crimes. Organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which was led by my friend and fellow Kentuckian, Ernie Allen, have told us that the majority of online sex trafficking cases they handle occur through a single website: For too long, this site has skirted the law to openly take part in the despicable sale of people online.

These organizations are able to hide their crimes because of a legal loophole. In 1996, Congress passed a bipartisan measure protecting websites from potential liability stemming from third-party posts. Since then, however, various courts have interpreted part of that law as a shield to protect online sex traffickers from being held accountable. That was clearly not the intent of the law when it was passed – I know because I voted for it – and this is why the law needs to be updated.

To close this loophole and end this injustice, I was proud to join with a bipartisan coalition led by Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) in supporting the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act,” or SESTA. This narrowly-crafted bill will ensure that bad actors are held accountable for their role in facilitating – and profiting from – sex crimes. In addition, the legislation will give state attorneys general the ability to prosecute websites that violate this federal law, all without affecting broader internet freedoms. If prosecutors are able to prove that the websites knowingly took part in these despicable acts, they can be held liable in court under this legislation.

SESTA is another in a long line of bills to protect our communities from the exploitation of children, and I was proud to vote for it when it passed the Senate. I would like to sincerely thank Senator Portman for his years-long efforts to investigate Backpage, to write legislation to combat this issue, and to earn overwhelming support for it in the House, the Senate, and from President Trump. His consistent advocacy on behalf of the victims of human trafficking is helping to reverse this alarming and growing trend and to make our nation a safer place.

We all have a responsibility to protect our children and to care for the victims of these vile acts. I was proud to support SESTA in the Senate because it will give prosecutors the tools to hold these websites accountable, and I look forward to President Trump signing our bill into law soon. SESTA is a critical step toward ensuring that our children are able to grow up in safe environments and reach their potential.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is Kentucky’s senior senator and the United States Senate Majority Leader. As Jefferson County Judge-Executive, he led the Kentucky Task Force on Missing and Exploited Children, and created the country’s first missing and exploited child unit in Louisville.