WASHINGTON – Victims of human trafficking are speaking out in Washington, calling on Congress to pass legislation that they say would disrupt the growing online sex trafficking industry.
While prostitution is against the law in most of the country and strictly regulated in Nevada, there's nothing that prohibits the internet from advertising about it. More than 60 senators are working to close this legal loophole and grant survivors their day in court.
"The more we dug into it, the more we realized that there was a federal law that protected these websites from the kind of prosecution you would normally expect and the kind of court cases that the victims would normally be able to bring," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told CBN News.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, would prevent those who use the web to traffic adults and minors from escaping liability.
Lauren Hersh, a former New York City prosecutor, left her job to become an advocate for victims when she saw the shift to online trafficking and a shortage of laws regulating the new marketplace. Hersh now works as the director of World Without Exploitation.
"I guess for the last six, maybe six and a half years I've been yelling at the computer screen saying, 'How is this possible? How is this legal watching young people being sold day in and day out? And websites making huge amounts of money from it?'" questioned Hersh.
She says passing SESTA would be a huge win for victims struggling in their legal battles against websites with a history of facilitating trafficking.
"It gives survivors avenues to hold these websites that are exploiting kids or facilitating the exploitation of kids, it gives survivors the avenue to hold these websites accountable," Hersh told CBN News.
The House passed a similar bill in November, but critics like Sen. Portman say it does more harm than good by protecting tech companies over victims.
"When people hear these stories and they understand what we're doing and how narrowly targeted this legislation is, it's not meant to interfere with the freedom of the internet. I think just the opposite. I think it's important that the internet police itself better," said Portman.
The Senate could vote on the bill by the end of the month.
"Right now, unbelievably in this country, in this century, you have an increase in sex trafficking – an increase!" said Portman. "I mean, it's tragic and we know it's happening, and we know why it's happening and we can do something about."
Sen. Portman hopes once the bill passes the Senate, his colleagues in the House will consider strengthening their version of the legislation.