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Bill aimed at websites that facilitate sex trafficking has enough votes to pass in U.S. Senate, Heitkamp says

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., attends a hearing in January 2017 to discuss the role of Backpage.com in facilitating human trafficking. Photo courtesy of Heitkamp's office.

A bill aimed at websites that facilitate online sex trafficking has enough votes for passage in the Senate, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Thursday, Jan. 11.

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) has 65 sponsors, Heitkamp said. She believes that number could grow to 70.

"That is an incredible feat in a politically charged environment," she said, adding the goal of the legislation is to prevent human trafficking, or at least keep online companies from making a profit from sex trafficking. "We think this amendment ... is essential to making sure this never happens again."

The bill would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to say facilitating the act of selling humans for sex online is not protected under the First Amendment but is a violation of federal criminal code, according to the bill's summary. Introduced in August by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, SESTA was written in response to a report revealing Backpage.com leadership "deliberately crafted loopholes that enabled the trafficking of men, women, and children online," according to a news release issued by Heitkamp's office on Jan. 10, 2017.

The day before the report was released, Backpage deleted its adult section, a spot that allegedly was used for human trafficking advertising. The website's leadership claimed Backpage was protected under the Communications Act and the First Amendment, calling moves to bring down the adult section "unconstitutional government censorship," according to statements from the company.

Heitkamp said it is "repulsive" that anyone would use the First Amendment "as a protection when they're selling children for sex."

"That was disgusting," she said. "They really were some of the most disgusting witnesses I've ever had before me since I've been in the Senate."

Backpage executives were asked to testify to a Senate subcommittee on the report in January 2017 but invoked the Fifth Amendment.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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