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CUA professor works to stop online sex trafficking

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In the fledgling days of the internet, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of that law was intended to provide limited protection for internet companies when a third party posted content to their website.  

Since then, courts have interpreted Section 230 to provide absolute immunity for websites — even when they are engaged in illegal activity. Now, courts, local prosecutors and advocates for victims of human trafficking have come to view Section 230 as a law that allows internet companies to benefit financially from trafficking, and leaves no legal recourse for victims. 

“We have a 1996 law being used to address a 21st century problem,” said Mary Graw Leary, a professor at The Catholic University of America's Columbus School of Law in Washington. “It was passed before we knew what the internet would be, and what sex trafficking would be, and before we knew what a harmful combination they would be together.”

Leary has spent much of her law career fighting against the abuse and exploitation of society’s most vulnerable. She and many victims groups are advocating for a bill that would amend the Communications Decency Act. But she fears lobbying from technology companies may result in an even worse law being passed.

Protecting women and children

Leary, who lives in Alexandria, grew up in Massachusetts and was raised in a Catholic family.

At her Catholic high school, she learned about the church's social justice teachings, which have inspired her throughout her life. “(We were) encouraged to develop a moral conscience (and) embrace our obligations as Christians,” she said.

After finishing her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington, Leary spent a year serving homeless children at Covenant House in New Orleans to better understand the people she would be working with as a lawyer. She realized that while both the offender and victim have dignity and deserve representation, she felt called to work for the latter. “The victims really have no one to speak for them,” she said.

Leary returned to Georgetown for law school and went on to work as a prosecutor in Cambridge, Mass., Philadelphia and Washington. The jobs, which focused on victims of sexual assault and family violence, were difficult and inspiring.

Acts such as those “tear at the American family. You can survive but they stay with you,” she said. “(But) then you see tremendous examples of strength and grace in the victims and in those who’ve helped them.”

As she had hoped, the work allowed her to make a difference in the lives of marginalized children. Oftentimes, “when you’re doing a child abuse case, all the adults in (the child’s) life — the people who are supposed to protect them — haven’t, and often are harming them,” she said. “It’s very gratifying (to see) justice is being done for that child, but you also see the child, for the first time in their life, has reason to trust adults. It can change the course of their life.”

Eventually, she took a job at the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and later at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 2006, she began work at Catholic U.

While the law plays an important role in creating a safer world, Leary believes in a holistic approach to stop these social ills. Catholics and all those who believe in the innate dignity of every human being should stigmatize sexual exploitation on every level, she said. 

“We know it’s a continuum,” that ranges from the objectification of women in movies, music, and television all the way to the buying and selling of people, she said. The explosion of internet pornography, seen as mainstream in much of the culture, has increased the demand for human trafficking; its users are more likely to seek out prostitutes, who are often victims.

“We continue to normalize things that are bad for children and women. We are all called to stand up to fight,” she said. “The resistance to combating sex trafficking and pornography reveals how women are not perceived as people with inherent dignity in many quarters of society.”

Section 230

Of the hundreds of minors sold for sex in the United States, two-thirds are trafficked online, according to the research group Thorn. The plight of several of these trafficked youths was profiled in a recent documentary titled, “I am Jane Doe.” In these cases, a few of the young victims were reunited with their families, and some of their traffickers were put behind bars. But the websites where they had been sold, primarily Backpage.com, remained untouchable. 

Thanks to the documentary and other media attention, a movement in Congress to amend Section 230 has gained traction. Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in October, Leary explained, “Sex trafficking is on the rise and one of the reasons is the well-intentioned Section 230. Sex trafficking has flourished on the unregulated internet. The lure of low-cost, high profit, no risk has brought traffickers to the web, and they have flocked there to find unscrupulous service companies who are more than willing to facilitate the sale of people.”

The bipartisan Senate Bill 1693 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is supported by trafficking victims advocacy groups, said Leary. Unfortunately, a House version of the bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, took a different approach that many believe leaves victims without legal options. 

A letter signed by several anti-trafficking groups sent to the House Judiciary Committee stated, “The Senate Commerce Committee recently and unanimously approved legislation that directly

addresses the Section 230 issue, allows for civil and criminal liability, and has the support of survivors, advocates, and the tech community. Our hope is that the House can find a similar solution that will provide survivors with the legal remedies they so clearly need.”

Leary encourages all to ask their legislators to support the Senate version of the bill. 

“Every argument against this reform by the tech community says, ‘We’re against sex trafficking but ... and then they list some things they claim will be threatened such as innovation or small startups.’ When did business protection somehow outweigh the selling of human beings?” she asked. “I can’t help but think about the arguments that were made in the 1800s apologizing for slavery. These would include statements such as, ‘Slavery is bad but... states’ rights are important, or textiles will be more expensive.’ At some point you have to say the right not to be sold online outweighs these other commercial interests, and I think that day has come.”

International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the International Union of Superiors General have designated Feb. 8 as an annual day of prayer and awareness against human trafficking. Feb. 8 is the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy. Once Josephine was freed, she became a Canossian nun and dedicated her life to sharing her testament of deliverance from slavery and comforting the poor and suffering. She was declared a saint in 2000.

On Feb. 8, Catholics all over the world are encouraged to host or attend prayer services to create greater awareness about this phenomenon. Through prayer, Catholics not only reflect on the experiences of those that have suffered through this affront to human dignity, but also comfort, strengthen and help empower survivors.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018