“We have shut down nearly 90 percent of the online sex-trafficking business and ads.”
— Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), in a video released by the House Judiciary Committee, July 20, 2018
In April, President Trump signed into law a bill, often known under the inelegant name of FOSTA-SESTA, that purportedly aims to cut down on online sex trafficking. (There was a House bill known as FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and a Senate bill, SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Rather than try to merge them, Congress simply added much of the SESTA language to FOSTA.)
In a self-congratulatory video posted on July 20 by the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, Wagner, the key sponsor of FOSTA, made a claim that caught our attention: “We have shut down nearly 90 percent of the online sex trafficking business and ads.”
This seems a data point worth exploring, but it’s taken some time to come up with the numbers. Let’s explore.
Regular readers of the Fact Checker may recall that in 2015 we debunked several faulty or misleading claims about sex trafficking made by members of Congress, including Wagner. Sex trafficking is a horrific crime, but real data is sparse and often exaggerated. Wagner, for instance, had claimed that the Justice Department estimated that 300,000 girls in the United States were at risk of being sex trafficked. But it turned out it was not a Justice Department figure but a number plucked out of a stale, decades-old study that had not been peer-reviewed and was largely discredited.
We were pleased when many lawmakers stopped using such phony statistics — and anti-trafficking organizations scrubbed them from their websites.
A 2016 study funded by the Justice Department concluded that the total number of juveniles in the sex trade in the United States was about 9,000 to 10,000. The study also found that only about 15 percent of the children relied on pimps and that the average age of entry into the sex trade was 15.8 years.
Nevertheless, FOSTA-SESTA swept through Congress with overwhelming support on the basis of concerns that the Internet allows the sex trade to flourish in secret, in contrast to street corners. The law gave federal and state prosecutors new tools to go after websites on which sex is sold and also made it easier for trafficking victims to file lawsuits.
Moreover, the law targeted not just sex trafficking but all consensual sex work by adding an exception to Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Before passage of FOSTA-SESTA, platforms and Internet service providers were not held responsible for user-generated content, but the law changed that so that they would be held responsible for ads for sex work.
Previously, sex-work websites such as Backpage would be able to cite Section 230 to get lawsuits dismissed. Most of the ads on Backpage were for consensual sex work, but a Senate investigation turned up evidence that Backpage knowingly facilitated the underage sex business by editing ads posted in its “adult services” section to eliminate terms such as “Lolita” and “Little girl.”
Unrelated to the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, federal prosecutors on April 6 seized Backpage and shut it down, announcing that the chief executive had pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. At least initially, sex workers such as escorts, sensual-massage therapists and dominatrixes said the closure of Backpage meant a significant loss of income and made the business less safe because it was harder for them to vet potential clients.
Now let’s turn to Wagner’s quote: “We have shut down nearly 90 percent of the online sex-trafficking business and ads."
When asked for evidence, Wagner’s office sent a chart that tracked all sex-related advertising, saying that it showed weekly global ad volume dropped 87 percent from January to April. The chart was generated through a system called Memex, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA Memex has since evolved into Tellfinder, managed by Uncharted Software.
But there are some problems.
The biggest drop in ads came after the shutdown of Backpage, which came even before Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA into law. Wagner’s staff noted that a drop also took place after the laws achieved final passage in Congress on March 21, prompting sex-oriented websites such as CityVibe and the Erotic Review to begin to shut down in the United States.
“The DOJ’s shutdown of Backpage certainly contributed to these numbers,” a Wagner aide said. “FOSTA also serves as a deterrent to other websites that may consider entering this space.”
Okay, but what happened after April? Wagner’s staff refused to share the data, so we asked first DARPA and then Uncharted Software for the information.
Under Tellfinder, all sex-trade ads globally are tracked, counting unique URLs observed by the search engine. Often at the beginning the month there are spikes that indicate when the search engines first observes an ad because many of the websites don’t publish the date when an ad is posted.
Well, it turns out that after that initial drop, advertising for the sex trade appears to have rebounded, such as on new websites that mimic Backpage with names like “Bedpage.”
Worldwide ads had a daily average of about 105,000 when FOSTA-SESTA passed on March 21 and had dropped 28 percent by the time Backpage was closed on April 5. It then plunged another 75 percent and reached a low of 19,456 on April 17, for a total decline of about 82 percent.
But on the day the Judiciary Committee posted the video, sex-trade ads were back at about 50 percent of the daily volume before the law had passed; as of Aug. 11, they were at almost 75 percent. (Watch the video above.)
“The volume of ads dropped dramatically after the shutdown of Backpage but has been climbing since,” said Chris Dickson, director of research engineering at Uncharted. “There is now a volume approaching what we observed before.”
However, he added, “it’s an open question as to whether the websites now have gotten much better at making it look like they have a lot of content or if the advertising really is back to where it was. It’s likely somewhere in between, but it’s too soon to definitively answer this.”
There is little doubt that the law has had an impact in other ways. Sites such as Reddit, Craiglist and Skype began to change their terms of service and ban sex workers from their platforms. But other sites, such as Switter, have sprung up for U.S. sex workers, according to USA Today. Switter’s website operates from countries where sex work is legal, thus avoiding U.S. restrictions, and as of late June, Switter had more than 100,000 members on its site.
Wagner, in the Judiciary Committee video, celebrated a decline of “sex-trafficking business and ads” but as we noted, the metric she is using is advertising for all sex work. The actual impact on “sex trafficking” is unknown.
In a House floor speech in July, Wagner made it clear she equates sex work with sex trafficking. “Signing FOSTA into law has decimated the online sex trade that fuels human trafficking in America,” she said. “Scores of major websites that promoted sex trafficking and prostitution have shut down.”
The Pinocchio Test
Wagner may be sincere in her belief that sex work in general fuels human trafficking but it’s a bit of stretch to say a 90 percent decline in sex-trade ads means there is a 90 percent decline in the sex-trafficking business. There’s really no way to be sure, and it’s misleading to suggest otherwise.
In any case, the 90 percent drop in sex-work ads was a one-time event, sparked mostly by the demise of Backpage, not the FOSTA-SESTA law. By the time the Judiciary Committee video was released, sex-work advertising had begun to rebound — and it keeps going up, despite the law. Wagner should not seize on a single, stale data point to tout the effectiveness of the law. She earns Three Pinocchios.
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