Rep. Brad Wenstrup: Finally: Human trafficking laws catch up with the digital age

Brad Wenstrup

Number five. That’s where Ohio ranks for the most human trafficking cases in the nation. Last year, according to the annual report of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s Human Trafficking Commission, law enforcement identified 208 potential victims statewide. That number represents a 38 percent increase from the trafficking numbers reported in 2016. 18 percent of those identified were minors, with two victims 13 or younger.

But the human trafficking crisis hits close to home for Ohioans for another reason. Just last year, Ohio ranked second in the nation for overdose deaths. Over the past two years, drug deaths in Ohio have escalated at nearly triple the rate of the increase in deaths nationwide, as reported by the Columbus Dispatch. Numbers plotting out exactly how opioids and human trafficking intersect are difficult to come by, but it is no secret that the two industries feed into — and off of — each other. A recent series by Newsy featured Covington, Kentucky’s battle against both the drug and human trafficking industries. According to Newsy, reports from Kentucky show that one-third of cases involving child human trafficking also involved drugs in some way. This is just a bridge away from Cincinnati.

The problem is in our backyard. The question is what is being done about it. With the rise of the internet, human trafficking has become one of the fastest-growing businesses of global organized crime. Often people still tend to picture back alleyways and dark brothels when we imagine human trafficking. We think of men loafing on street corners or hanging around shopping malls to lure their prey. Those situations are still far too common, but today’s targets don’t have to be in a back alley — they can also be at home where the online illicit marketplace is available at an exploiter’s fingertips, targeting the young and vulnerable.

Our laws simply have not kept pace with the digital age. For the past two decades, law enforcement relied on the outdated Communications Decency Act of 1996 to authorize its actions. This law was never intended to address the kind of 21st century trafficking methods used by websites like Backpage.com and users on online platforms like Craigslist.

In order to effectively fight today’s massive online sex trafficking industry, our laws need to be modernized. That’s why Congress recently passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, called FOSTA, which gives law enforcement more specific authority to crack down on websites that facilitate sex trafficking. I was proud to vote for this legislation because in addition to equipping states with more tools to investigate and prosecute the businesses that enable online sex trafficking, FOSTA also increases criminal penalties for websites that enable illegal prostitution or trafficking. It also empowers victims to seek justice by providing recourse for them to sue.

Thankfully, there have been positive and tangible developments in the fight to protect human trafficking victims. Recently, visitors who visited Backpage.com were confronted with this message: “Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized as part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division.”

On April 5th, the CEO of Backpage pled guilty to “conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce and to engage in money laundering,” according to the Department of Justice. Visitors to the “personals” section of Craigslist have been redirected to a short statement about the bill. Websites like Reddit have reacted to the new law by shutting down certain advertising pages often used for online escort services.

There are many more aspects to our nation’s online human trafficking crisis that still need to be understood and addressed. This multifaceted industry and sadly massive marketplace is not easily eliminated with one law. But this bill makes critical progress towards disrupting ad distribution and modernizing our laws to address the new challenges of the digital age. It is concrete action based on our shared belief that the trafficking and exploitation of any person – and especially children – is an attack on human dignity. It has no place in our country.

Congressman Wenstrup (R-OH) represents Ohio’s Second Congressional District in the House of Representatives. He is a Member of the House Committee on Ways and Means and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.