Story highlights

Children are particularly vulnerable to online exploitation, writes president of UNICEF USA

Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) is a step toward building a safer internet, she says

Editor’s Note: Caryl M. Stern is president and CEO of UNICEF USA, an organization that supports UNICEF’s work around the world. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN —  

Today, as we mark Safer Internet Day, it’s time we put children first - online as well as offline - and pass the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).

With children under 18 representing one in three internet users worldwide, it is our responsibility to put children at the heart of digital policies and to make ending online child exploitation a top priority.

Every half second, or in the time it takes to click a mouse, a new child goes online for the first time. We know that Internet access provides incredible opportunities, empowering young people to connect with their peers, express themselves, learn about world around them and find solutions to the issues affecting their lives.

’Marketplace for human trafficking’

However, the online world also leaves children vulnerable to risks – including a new marketplace for human trafficking. Fast to adapt to the latest technologies, traffickers employ various strategies online to exploit, abuse and cause harm to children, challenging the ability of law enforcement to keep up.

While the trafficking of children for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a crime that occurs around the world, the United States is a source and transit country as well as a major destination point for trafficked and exploited individuals.

41:34 - Source: CNN
The CNN Freedom Project: Children for Sale

What happens in society is also reflected online: the U.S. is one of five countries that host more than 90% of all child sexual abuse URLs identified globally. It’s time for decision makers in the U.S. to take action to ensure children’s safety and wellbeing in our increasingly connected world.

Ending child trafficking and exploitation online is everybody’s business, and all those who play a role in enabling this horrific crime should be held accountable. However, courts have ruled that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) provides legal protection to website operators, shielding them from state and civil liability for criminal activities conducted by third parties on their platforms.

Even when classified ads websites have been accused of knowingly allowing and facilitating child sex advertising, the existing legislation has consistently protected them from criminal charges. This means that victims of online child sex trafficking face enormous challenges in obtaining justice.

’Building a safer internet’

SESTA was introduced on August 1 2017 and seeks to address this by amending Section 230 of the CDA, using narrowly crafted language, so that website operators that knowingly assist, support or facilitate child sex trafficking can be held accountable. The bill is intended to help prosecutors target online ad services for their role in enabling the sexual exploitation of children online and help survivors find justice.

A wide range of stakeholders have already voiced their support, including trafficking survivors, anti-human trafficking advocates, law enforcement, the civil rights community, faith-based groups, members of tech community, 50 Attorneys General, and courts and judges.

As president and CEO of UNICEF USA, I applaud Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) for leading on this legislation. I am proud to be part of a global effort to protect children from violence in all its forms and put an end to the exploitation of children.

Let’s work together to harness the opportunities of the digital age while taking the measures to protect children from trafficking and other threats they can encounter online. Unless we act now to keep pace with and find innovative solutions to rapidly evolving risks online, we will leave children more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and abuse. Passing SESTA is a step toward building a safer internet and a better future for all children.