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Op-Ed: A New Trade Deal Must Protect Victims Of Sex Trafficking

Last spring in Washington D.C., I had the privilege of standing with survivors of sex trafficking as they celebrated a major victory when Congress approved bipartisan legislation SESTA/FOSTA, removing immunity for companies like Backpage who knowingly profited off sex trafficking under Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act.

Now, in the midst of the Canada – U.S. trade negotiations, it has come to light that tech companies are using NAFTA discussions to bring back sex trafficking immunity provisions in the U.S. and expand them to Canada.

Over the past few years, this type of immunity allowed companies like Backpage to make millions off the sex trafficking of adults and youth. In fact, a scathing 2017 U.S. Senate Report found that Backpage was knowingly profiting from ads that featured adult and child victims of sex trafficking. As you know, last spring, the FBI seized Backpage’s website, charged its founders with sex trafficking, and shut down all global Backpage sites.

In Canada, hundreds of Backpage ads featuring prostituted adults and youth were posted each day on its site. Before the adoption of SESTA/FOSTA, the Toronto Police Service reported that 95 per cent of underage trafficking victims found were sold on Backpage. Many other police services across Canada have made similar findings.

Backpage’s whole business model was based on profiting from sexual exploitation. In fact, Backpage’s sexual advertisements contributed to 99 per cent of Backpage’s global revenue – hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of exploited adults and children. Should the Section 230-like language return through a Canada-U.S. trade deal, companies in the U.S., and now Canada, would be shielded from prosecution for profiting off the sale of adults and youth for sexual exploitation.

Now the National Centre on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) is warning Canada that a new NAFTA deal may restore immunity for companies that profit off of the sex trafficking of women and children and this would negatively impact Canada. Earlier this year, former Justice Minister Peter MacKay, also cautioned Canada of the dangers of a new trade deal including Section 230 language writing:
“…the U.S. delegation to the North American free-trade agreement talks has attempted to include similar immunity protections for internet service providers in NAFTA 2.0 as necessary to protect business interests across North America. Canada’s Foreign Minister and negotiating team must not stand for this. The last thing we should be doing is transplanting immunity for online offenders who prey upon and profit from the horrific abuse of children in Canada.”

Last January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobby group funded by big tech companies, revealed their plans for restoring Section 230-like language through NAFTA negotiations stating:
“Exporting Section 230 to Mexico and Canada isn’t the only reason to advocate for its inclusion in a modernized NAFTA….As uncomfortable as we are with the lack of openness of trade negotiations, baking Section 230 into NAFTA may be the best opportunity we have to protect it domestically.”

Canada, through Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, must not allow Section 230-like language to be exported to our country through inclusion in a new trade deal. Otherwise, this would only serve to protect companies that profit off sex trafficking.

Last month, survivors of sex trafficking wrote a letter to the President of the United States regarding the trade negotiations with Canada and Mexico. These survivors have fought so courageously over the past few years to end the immunity provided by Section 230 and their words are deeply moving:
“The pain that many of us went through, either because of our own exploitation or the trauma (including murder) of our children and family members who were sold on websites like Backpage.com will never go away. However, we were comforted by the passage of this important legislation, knowing that victims, as well as local and state law enforcement, now have tools to hold bad actor websites accountable when knowingly engaging in this crime. The inclusion of Section 230-like language was at the behest of the American tech lobbies – and removing that language we believe would be acceptable to the Mexican government (and Canadian government), and, more importantly, will help protect thousands of children who are currently being sexually exploited online.”

We must continue to stand against exploitation with these survivors, starting with ensuring a new Canada-U.S. trade deal does not restore immunity for corporations to profit off sex trafficking.