Top law enforcement officers across the country are pushing Congress for greater authority to go after a booming online industry that hosts ads for child sex traffickers. But they are encountering opposition from an unexpected source — conservative state lawmakers who fear a government clamp down on Internet businesses.
The conflict highlights the difficulty of policing an online marketplace that has rapidly evolved under a generally hands-off approach by government.
A coalition of conservative lawmakers and businesses has drafted a model resolution that could be considered next year in state capitols from coast to coast. The document, obtained by The Associated Press, urges Congress to deny state prosecutors the enforcement power they seek over the ads— warning that it could discourage investment in new Internet services.
For state lawmakers wary of being characterized as sympathetic to sex offenders, it's admittedly a political risk.
"Obviously, anything dealing with sexual predators or sex trafficking, we want to put an absolute stop to that," said North Dakota state Rep. Blair Thoreson,a Republican who leads a multi-state task force opposing the request by state attorneys' general. "But in this case, I think we can maybe find other ways to do it..."
Some attorneys general say the concerns are unfounded.
"It's not like we're trying to hurt free speech. We're trying to protect children who are being sold for sex," said Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, a Republican.
Of particular concern to state attorneys general are online classifieds, such as those hosted by Backpage.com, which advertise "adult" services for strippers and escorts with veiled references to prostitution. Investigators say that pimps offering children are using the sites, making it easier for pedophiles to buy sex.
Under pressure from attorneys general, Craigslist shut down its adult services section in 2010.
Prosecutors have brought charges against pimps, prostitutes and customers who have advertised on Backpage. But they have been precluded from pursuing the website itself because of a 1996 federal law that generally shields website operators from liability for content posted by users.
Last month, a U.S. district judge blocked a newly enacted New Jersey law against advertising sexual services by minors. Judges in Tennessee and Washington have issued similar rulings.
Frustrated by such failures, 47 state attorneys general signed a letter this summer to the leaders of the U.S. House and Senate commerce committees urging them to make a two-word tweak to the federal law to allow the prosecutions. Congress has yet to act.
When "corporations are knowingly generating revenue from what is widely or universally viewed as criminal conduct, the (federal law) should not stand as a shield for corporate revenues," said Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat who was the lead signatory of the letter.
Elizabeth McDougall, the general counsel for Dallas-based Backpage.com, said the legal change is unnecessary. She said the company's filtering software catches tell-tale terms for child prostitution like "schoolgirl" and "trip to the islands." All "adult" classifieds are reviewed by employees, she said, and 400 to 700 ads a month are referred to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
If U.S. website operators were forced to shut down adult classifieds, she said, many of those ads simply would shift to websites hosted in foreign countries that might not cooperate with U.S. authorities.
"It would be an ineffective and counterproductive measure to help combat domestic minor sex trafficking," McDougall said.
Advocates for online businesses said the legal change could force startup companies to keep track of thousands of specific state laws and could lead to government intrusion into other Internet areas.
Carl Szabo, the policy counsel at NetChoice, a trade association, outlined his concerns last month during a closed-door task force meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of conservative lawmakers and businesses that crafts model legislation for states. The organization carries particular sway with Republicans, who now control more than half the state legislatures.
The task force drafted a resolution for adoption by state legislators urging Congress to reject the attorneys general's request. It could be ratified by the association's executive board as soon as October.
Attorneys general contend that child sex trafficking is expanding through the online classified sites. They pointed to numerous ads this year, including one by a Miami pimp who marketed a 13-year-old girl with his name tattooed across her eyelids to mark her as his property. Shared Hope International, a nonprofit group that seeks to prevent sex trafficking, has tracked 232 criminal cases in 45 states involving more than 300 children who were marketed on Backpage.com since 2010.
The online sex ads often use code words, such as "young and tender," when referring to children, Olens said.
But police posing as teenagers also have used Backpage.com as an investigative tool. Going after website operators may temporarily make it harder for pimps to market children for sex, but won't solve the problem, said some investigators.
"When one site is shut down or no longer exists, this activity moves to another site," said Lt. Chuck Cohen, commander of the cybercrime section of the Indiana State Police.