According to the government in the State of Washington
, “Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today.” In response to this crime, the Washington State website against trafficking
boasts that the state has passed the “most stringent law in the country”. The state added to this stance earlier this year when the state congress unanimously passed a new law
directed at media sources of all kinds that include ads for escort services. The Washington State government found that many of the ads show depictions of children, and have responded by making it a Class C felony for anyone that “knowingly publishes, disseminates, or displays, or causes directly or indirectly, to be published, disseminated, or displayed, any advertisement for a commercial sex act…that includes the depiction of a minor”. While at first glance Washington’s new stance seems positive, in reality the law will most probably prove to be unenforceable, and may even be counterproductive to the fight against human trafficking.
Washington State’s plan for enforcing the new law is a new “photo-ID” requirement: the language of the enactment indicates that a potential advertiser must make a “reasonable bona fide attempt” to determine the age of anyone depicted in advertisements through some sort of identification. Sources have indicated
numerous flaws with the enforcement system. Most notably, the law will include an “in-person verification system” for its photo-ID requirement of online advertisers. This requirement is seemingly directed at online escort advertisers like Backpage.com
. Backpage.com, a site similar to Craigslist.com, has filled the void left by the online classified giant when the company removed its escort service in 2010. Since that time, according to a recent article
written in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, Backpage.com has become the biggest forum for sex trafficking in the United States. While this in-person verification requirement sounds good, in reality it seems highly unlikely websites like Backpage.com will suddenly be able (or willing: “The law relating to online commercial advertising is unfortunately practically unworkable in the Internet realm,” says
Liz McDougall, general counsel for Village Voice Media.) to make in-person ID checks of all those that would put escort ads on their website. Furthermore, the law doesn’t seem to address the real possibility of fake ID’s being used, or having adult pictures used while then offering minor escorts. Beyond looking at an ID, the law doesn’t even define what a “reasonable bona fide attempt” means. This lack of clarity most probably means that the enforceability of the law is, as critics
have said, “left up to prosecutorial discretion”. And as Washington state prosecutors had yet to file a single trafficking related case five years after
the “most stringent law in the country” was passed, don’t hold your breath waiting for the attorney general to enforce the newly passed law.
While proponents of the bill have acknowledged its limits, they remain positive that it will provide another burden for a would-be trafficker. Some critics argue, however, that the law’s future goal of taking down sites like Backpage.com may actually hurt the fight against human trafficking in the long run. In his recent New York Times article,
Kristof stated that Backpage.com has become the biggest forum for sex trafficking in the United States. In attempting to hold those with ownership stake in Backpage.com accountable, Kristof’s article also pointed out that one of the companies with stock in Village Voice Media (the company that owns Backpage.com) was Goldman Sachs. In exposing this ownership, Kristof hoped to take a step further than the Washington law by having these owners pressure Village Voice into getting rid of all the escort adds on Backpage.com.
Village Voice, however, argues that it is the very existence of sites like Backpage.com that allow for human traffickers to be found and prosecuted. Ina response
to Kristof’s article, the company argues, “for the first time in the history of sex work, law enforcement has, because of the Internet, the ability to shine a light upon those who would abuse children.” Citing several studies
done by the likes of USC and Harvard, Village Voice believes that Kristof’s approach “would drive victims back to the shadows”. And they may be right: forcing domestic servers to close their escort ads down may simply lead to foreign sources stepping in to take their place. While sites like Backpage.com employ hundreds of staff members to patrol the site for underage exploitation and provide law enforcement with information pertaining to potential traffickers, internationally-based servers would be under no obligation to act accordingly.
So while the Washington State law may sound to some like a step in the right direction
, its inevitable lack of enforceability and potential destructive nature may make it just the opposite.