How do we protect vulnerable people in a technological age?
This is the fundamental question behind “I Am Jane Doe,” a documentary film by Mary Mazzio, that explores the trafficking and sexual enslavement of children and teens, specifically enabled by online advertisements.
I attended a St. Louis-area screening of the film last night. It is a disturbing look at how girls – typically runaways, or otherwise temporarily separated from friends or caretakers — can be lost to rings of predators who find a seemingly never-ending supply of customers online.
But “I Am Jane Doe” also excels as a legal thriller, a nail-biter which follows the quest of several desperate parents of formerly trafficked girls who enlist the aid of local, under-prepared attorneys to help them find justice. Their target is Backpage.com, a website that was once part of Village Voice Media, which serves the majority of these problematic ads, making tens of millions in the process.
That the first brave mother to file suit against Backpage in 2010 was from Ferguson, Mo., makes a difficult story even more poignant.
But the true villain in the drama is Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act or CDA, a tiny legislative carve-out which protects websites that post third-party content from being subject to civil or criminal liability. As a result, the heartbreaking legal efforts of families to shut down Backpage.com over a period of six years were doomed from the beginning.
While the individual stories cannot possibly fail to move you, the legislative solution the film supports is more complicated.
Mazzio is crisscrossing the country screening the film and participating in panel discussions about recent bipartisan legislation, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or SESTA (S. 1693) which aims to amend the CDA specifically to allow websites that “facilitate” sex trafficking to now be held liable. (You can see the film anytime on Netflix, among other places.)
The film showcases the work of high profile Senators: Arizona’s John McCain, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, and Ohio’s Rob Portman, chiefly among them. And as the lawsuits mount, the legal arguments get more interesting as well.
Spoiler alert: If you were a fan of jurist Richard Posner before this film, you probably won’t be afterward.
SESTA, which would allow state attorneys general to prosecute websites under state laws, could open up a potential floodgate of wide-ranging lawsuits. “We recognize that attempts to amend Section 230 target sex traffickers are well intended. However, the likely result will be to create a trial lawyer bonanza of overly-broad civil lawsuits,” says Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Technology Association.
“[M]ost tech companies have been circumspect about their opposition to the bill, choosing to voice their concerns by proxy through trade groups like the Internet Association, which includes Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Twitter among its members,” says The Verge in this useful explainer.
But lately, worried about being on the wrong side of an emotional issue, big tech is signaling some openness to change.
In recent Senate testimony, Abigail Slater, the Internet Association’s general counsel said in addition to criminal sanctions against Backpage, “We also support targeted amendments to the Communications Decency Act that would allow victims of sex trafficking crimes to seek justice against perpetrators.”
There’s a lot at stake, particularly now as Facebook, Google, and Twitter head back to Capitol Hill to explore how Russian trolls may have influenced the U.S. election. “The abuse of our platform by sophisticated foreign actors to attempt state-sponsored manipulation of elections is a new challenge for us — and one that we are determined to meet,” says Twitter’s acting general counsel in written testimony.
But propaganda, like sexual coercion and abuse, is nothing new.
Important cultural issues are surfaced in “I Am Jane Doe,” but largely ignored. The girls, once rescued, faced bullying, blaming and shaming from their peers. They feel isolated and alone. The men who paid to have sex with them — often suburban men with jobs, families, and reputations to protect — are rarely punished. And the parents are still struggling to find ways to help their traumatized daughters heal. That this is how we treat women should come as no surprise in the #MeToo era.
While we all need to better understand SESTA, one thing remains clear. If we want to protect vulnerable people online or anywhere else, it would help if we also faced these bigger, real-world issues head-on. That’s something that all the Decency Acts in the world won’t be able to do for us.
|So far, the racist costume of the season involves Colin Kaepernick|
|I know it’s still early, but there seems to be a clear trend in the making. First, a campus police officer at the University of Nevada put on a wig and fake nose, painted on a beard, donned a homemade 49ers jersey and scrawled a sign that said,“will stand for food.” After photos were shared, the director of police services on campus was forced to issue an apology. Then, at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., a student was photographed in blackface and a Kap wig, looking stupid, with someone else holding a gun to his head. I won’t link to the vile photo, but the obligatory apology from Dickinson’s dean of student life is below.|
|Twitter is attempting to crack down on revenge porn|
|Revenge porn is a nasty form of retaliation, perpetrated by jilted or otherwise disturbed former associates when they post sexually explicit photos or videos of others without their consent. Twitter has done a poor job of preventing this in the past. While their previous rules prevented users from posting “intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject’s consent,” the new rules go into greater detail about what constitutes “compromising imagery.” Hope it helps.|
|Top editor Michelle Lee is winning at Allure|
|Lee earned kudos a couple of months back for banning the term “anti-aging” at the woman’s publication, to stop “reinforcing the message that aging is something we need to battle.” She’s also been a champion for diverse faces and points of view, tackling real issues head-on — like mastectomies and transgender activism. And Muslim model Halima Aden appeared on the cover of the July “American Beauty” issue — the first time a woman wearing hijab was featured on the cover of a major American magazine.|
|Native American activist Dennis Banks has died|
|Banks, who helped found the American Indian Movement in 1968, died from complications after heart surgery. He was 80. Banks may have been best known for leading the group’s 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in a 71-day protest against both the U.S. and tribal governments.“Dennis Banks is somebody who had an indelible impact on history, not just in our native community but throughout our country,” said Anton Treuer, a professor of the Ojibwe language at Bemidji State University. Banks died surrounded by friends and loved ones. Click through to his Facebook page for stories and tributes. His bio is below.|
The Woke Leader
|Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates takes on John Kelly and Civil War revisionism|
|White House Chief of Staff John Kelly continues to be a polarizing figure. After he lauded Confederate general Robert E. Lee as a hero, and said that the Civil War was caused by a “lack of compromise,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates woke up early and took Twitter to civics class. “Regarding John Kelly’s creationist theorizing on Lee and the Civil War, its worth pointing out a few things,” he began in a detailed thread on history, compromise, and war. “This stuff is knowable,” he said. “But you do have to actually read what the people who started the War actually said.” And, this: “You do have to get these guys were the worst of America.|
|The mathematical genius of John Coltrane|
|Coltrane was a magical figure to many — part transcendent jazzman, part spiritual seeker. Those two elements came together in a sketch experts called “the Coltrane circle,” a version of the musical “circle of fifths” — a representation of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale — but amplified with a Coltrane twist. Some see elements of Islam in the sketch, a musical mathematics that’s connected to the divine. But in addition to his mystical journey, “Coltrane was also very much aware of Einstein’s work and liked to talk about it frequently,” says musician and writer Josh Jones. “Musican David Amram remembers the Giant Steps genius telling him he “was trying to do something like that in music.”|
|Halloween: A cautionary tale|
|Last year, a man dressed as Cookie Monster in New York’s Times Square district attempted to break up a fight between a man dressed as a pilot and a man dressed as a stereotype of a Native American. The pilot, who was portraying a Tuskegee Airman, set upon the other man, declaring the costume “racist.” He pulled a knife when Cookie Monster attempted to intervene. Cookie Monster was treated and released. I hate Halloween.|